Workman v. New York/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

179 U.S. 552

Workman  v.  New York

 Argued: April 20, 1897. --- Decided: for reargument November 7, 1898

It is clearly deducible from the record that the courts below concurred in dismissing the libel as against the fire department of the city of New York, upon the contention made in the answer of the department that under the provisions of a named statute of the state of New York, the fire department of the city of New York was neither a corporation nor a quasi corporation, but was merely a department of the city. As no controversy is made respecting the correctness of the decree in this particular, we dismiss this subject from view.

With reference to the decree rendered by both courts against Gallagher, the district judge held that, giving due consideration to the emergency of fire, 'the running into the Linda Park arose through lack of reasonable prudence, and was unnecessary and negligent.' 63 Fed. Rep. 298. The circuit court of appeals, in its opinion, affirming the decree against Gallagher, said:

'The evidence in the record adequately supports the conclusion of the court below that the injuries caused to the libellant's vessel by the impact of the fire-boat were caused by the negligent manner [management?] of the fire-boat while the latter was trying to reach a convenient location to play upon a burning building near the pier at which the libellant's vessel was moored.'

There is no substantial controversy raised on the record as to the premise of fact upon which the personal decree against Gallagher was rendered by both the courts below. And even if such were not the case, the facts upon which Gallagher's liability depends are not now open to controversy, because of the well-settled doctrine that where both courts below have concurred in a finding of fact, it will, in this court, be accepted as conclusive, unless it affirmatively appears that the lower courts obviously erred. The Carib Prince, 170 U.S. 655, 658, sub nom. Wuppermann v. The Carib Prince, 42 L. ed. 1181, 1185, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 753, and cases there cited. It is clear that it was seriously claimed that both the courts below had manifestly erred in their appreciation of the facts as to negligence in the management of the fire-boat, the testimony would not justify the assertion. We shall therefore no further consider this feature of the case.

In order to elucidate the serious question which arises for discussion, we briefly state the reasons by which the courts below were led to reach opposing conclusions as to the liability or nonliability of the city.

The district court, on the assumption that the local law controlled, determined that by that law, as declared in decisions of the courts of the state of New York, the city was liable for the injury caused by the negligent management of its fire-boat. The circuit court of appeals, however, was of opinion that the city of New York was not answerable for the injury inflicted, for the reasons which it thus stated (14 C. C. A. 531, 35 U.S. App. 204, 67 Fed. Rep. 348):

'It is familiar law that the officers selected by a municipal corporation to perform a public service for the general welfare of the inhabitants or the community, in which the corporation has no private interest and from which it derives no special benefit or advantage in its corporate capacity, are not to be regarded as the servants or agents of the municipality, and for their negligence or want of skill it cannot be held liable. This is so, notwithstanding such officers derive their appointment from, and are paid by, the corporation itself. In selecting and employing them, the municipality merely performs a political or governmental function; the duties intrusted to them do not relate to the exercise of corporate powers, and hence they are the agents or servants of the public at large. Upon this principle it has uniformly been decided by the courts that municipal corporations are not liable for the negligence or wrongful acts of the officers of the police or health departments committed in the course of their ordinary employment. Unless the duties of the officers of the fire department are of a different complexion, and they are the servants of the municipality because they are engaged in performing one of its corporate functions, the same principle must extend immunity to the municipality for the negligent acts of these officers and their subordinates.

* * * * *

'It is quite immaterial that the duties of these officers are defined and the offices created by the charter or organic law of the municipality. The test of corporate liability for the acts of the officers of the municipality depends upon the nature of the duties with which they are charged. If these, being for the general good of the public as individual citizens, are governmental, they act for the state. If they are those which primarily and legitimately devolve upon the municipality itself, they are its agents.'

Having thus determined the general principle by which the liability of the city was to be judged, the court reviewed some of the decisions of the court of appeals of New York, and deduced from them that the city, in the operation of the fire-boat, performed a governmental, and not a corporate, function, and, therefore, under the assumption that the decisions in question were authoritatively controlling, held the city not liable.

Whilst it is contended at bar that the district court correctly decided, considering the local law of New York alone, that the city was liable, it is also asserted that even if by such law there was no responsibility on the part of the city of New York, nevertheless the circuit court of appeals erred in deciding that the city was not bound, because by the maritime law the liability existed, and such law should have controlled, although the local law was to the contrary.

We come then to consider first, whether, in the decision of the controversy, the local law of the city of New York or the maritime law should control; and, second, if the case is solely governed by the maritime law, whether the city of New York is liable.

In examining the first question, that is, whether the local law of New York must prevail, though in conflict with the maritime law, it must be borne in mind that the issue is not-as was the case in Detroit v. Osborne (1890) 135 U.S. 492, 34 L. ed. 260, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1012,-whether the local law governs as to a controversy arising in the courts of common law or of equity of the United States, but, Does the local law, if in conflict with the maritime law, control a court of admiralty of the United States in the administration of maritime rights and duties, although judicial power with respect to such subjects has been expressly conferred by the Constitution (art. 3, § 2) upon the courts of the United States?

The proposition, then, which we must first consider may be thus stated: Although by the maritime law the duty rests upon courts of admiralty to afford redress for every injury jury to person or property where the subject-matter is within the cognizance of such courts, and when the wrongdoer is amenable to process, nevertheless the admiralty courts must deny all relief whenever redress for a wrong would not be afforded by the local law of a particular state or the course of decisions therein. And this, not because, by the rule prevailing in the state, the wrongdoer is not generally responsible and usually subject to process of courts of justice, but because in the commission of a particular act causing direct injury to a person or property it is considered, by the local decisions, that the wrongdoer is endowed with all the attributes of sovereignty, and therefore as to injuries by it done to others in the assumed sovereign character, courts are unable to administer justice by affording redress for the wrong inflicted.

The practical destruction of a uniform maritime law, which must arise from this premise, is made manifest when it is considered that if it be true that the principles of the general maritime law giving relief for every character of maritime tort where the wrongdoer is subject to the jurisdiction of admiralty courts can be overthrown by conflicting decisions of state courts, it would follow that there would be no general maritime law for the redress of wrongs, as such law would be necessarily one thing in one state and one in another; one thing in one port of the United States and a different thing in some other port. As the power to change state laws or state decisions rests with the state authorities by which such laws are enacted or decisions rendered, it would come to pass that the maritime law affording relief for wrongs done, instead of being general and ever abiding, would be purely local-would be one thing to-day and another thing to-morrow. That the confusion to result would amount to the abrogation of a uniform maritime law is at once patent. And the principle by which the maritime law would be thus in part practically destroyed would besides apply to other subjects specially confided by the Constitution to the Federal government. Thus, if the local law may control the maritime law, it must also govern in the decision of cases arising under the patent, copyright, and commerce clauses of the Constitution. It would result that a municipal corporation, in the exercise of administrative powers which the state law determines to be governmental, could with impunity violate the patent and copyright laws of the United States or the regulations enacted by Congress under the commerce clause of the Constitution, such as those concerning the enrollment and licensing of vessels. This follows if a corporation must, for a wrong by it done, be allowed to escape all reparation upon the theory that, though ordinarily liable to sue and be sued, it possessed in the particular matter the freedom from suit which attaches to a sovereign state.

The disappearance of all symmetry in the maritime law and the law on the other subjects referred to, which would thus arise, would, however, not be the only evil springing from the application of the principle relied on, since the maritime law which would survive would have imbedded in it a denial of justice. This must be the inevitable consequence of admitting the proposition which assumes that the maritime law disregards the rights of individuals to be protected in their persons and property from wrongful injury, by recognizing that those who are amenable to the jurisdiction of courts of admiralty are nevertheless endowed with a supposed governmental attribute by which they can inflict injury upon the person or property of another, and yet escape all responsibility therefor. It cannot be doubted that the greater part, if not the whole, of the maritime commerce of the country is either initiated or terminated in ports where municipal corporations exist. All the vessels, whether domestic or foreign, in which this vast commerce is carried, under the rule referred to, could be subjected to injury and wrong without power to obtain redress, since every municipality would be hedged about with the attributes of supreme sovereignty. For the principle with would exempt the municipal owner of a fire-boat from legal responsibility would be equally applicable to boats used by a street department for the removal of refuse, to ferries, to pilot boats, to training-school ships-one of which, it is suggested in argument, the city of New York now actually operates, and to all other vessels which the municipality might consider it necessary or desirable to use. The wrong and injustice which would thus arise need not be commented upon.

The evil consequences growing from thus implanting in the maritime law the doctrine that wrong can be done with impunity were very aptly pointed out in Mersey Docks & Harbour Board v. Gibbs (1866) L. R. 1 H. L. 122. In that case it was sought to hold the dock trustees liable for damage occasioned to a ship and cargo in striking a mud bank while attempting to enter a dock. The trustees asserted an exemption on the ground that they did not collect tolls for their own profit, but merely as trustees for the benefit of the public. Lord Chancellor Cranworth said:

'It would be a strange distinction to persons coming with their ships to different ports of this country, that in some ports, if they sustain damage by the negligence of those who have the management of the docks, they will be entitled to compensation, and in others they will not; such a distinction arising, not from any visible difference in the docks themselves, but from some municipal difference in the constitution of the bodies by whom the docks are managed.'

And still later, in deciding the case of Currie v. M'Knight [1897] A. C. 97, the House of Lords declared that while the admiralty law as known in England differs from the common law of England, and the common law of Scotland differs from the common law of England, because they were derived from divergent sources, yet the admiralty laws were derived both by Scotland and England from the same source, and 'it would be strange as well as in the highest degree inconvenient if a different maritime law prevailed in two different parts of the same island.'

Potential, however, as may be these arguments, predicated on the inherent injustice of the doctrine contended for, and the serious inconvenience which must result from an attempt to apply it, we are not thereby relieved from considering the question in a more fundamental aspect. In doing so, it becomes manifest that the decisions of this court overthrow the assumption that the local law or decisions of a state can deprive of all rights to relief, in a case where redress is afforded by the maritime law, and is sought to be availed of in a cause of action maritime in its nature and depending in a court of admiralty of the United States.

In The Key City (1872) 14 Wall. 653, 660, sub nom. Young v. The Key City, 20 L. ed. 896, 898, it was held that Federal courts of admiralty were not governed by state statutes of limitation in the enforcement of maritime liens. In The Lottawanna (1874) 21 Wall. 558, 578, sub nom. Rodd v. Heartt, 22 L. ed. 654, 663, it was held that the maritime law as accepted and received in this country did not confer a lien upon a vessel in favor of those who had furnished necessary materials, repairs, and supplies for such vessel in her home port, but that the district courts of the United States, having jurisdiction of the contract as a maritime one, might enforce liens given for its security, even when created by the state law.

In the course of the opinion, speaking through Mr. Justice Bradley, the court said (pp. 572, 573, 574, L. ed. p. 661):

'Whilst it is true that the great mass of maritime law is the same in all commercial countries, yet, in each country, peculiarities exist either as to some of the rules or in the mode of enforcing them. Especially is this the case on the outside boundaries of the law, where it comes in contact with or shades off into the local or municipal law of the particular country, and affects only its own merchants or people in their relations to each other.'

* * * * *

'That we have a maritime law of our own, operative throughout the United States, cannot be doubted. The general system of maritime law which was familiar to the lawyers and statesmen of the country when the Constitution was adopted, was most certainly intended and referred to when it was declared in that instrument that the judicial power of the United States shall extend 'to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.'

'The Constitution does not attempt to draw the boundary line between maritime law and local law; nor does it lay down any criterion for ascertaining that boundary. It assumes that the meaning of the phrase 'admiralty and maritime jurisdiction' is well understood. It treats this matter as it does the cognate ones of common law and equity, when it speaks of 'cases in law and equity,' or of 'suits at common law,' without defining those terms, assuming them to be known and understood.

'One thing, however, is unquestionable; the Constitution must have referred to a system of law coextensive with, and operating uniformly in, the whole country. It certainly could not have been the intention to place the rules and limits of maritime law under the disposal and regulation of the several states, as that would have defeated the uniformity and consistency at which the Constitution aimed on all subjects of a commercial character affecting the intercourse of the states with each other or with foreign states.'

In Liverpool & G. W. Steam Co. v. Phenix Ins. Co. (1889) 129 U.S. 397, 443, 32 L. ed. 788, 793, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 480, a maritime contract executed in New York was held to be an American contract, and the local law of New York was declared not to govern in its construction. In Butler v. Boston & S. S. S.C.o. (1889) 130 U.S. 527, 32 L. ed. 1017, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 612,-a case growing out of a collision in navigable waters within the territorial boundaries of Massachusetts-it was held that a state statute could not operate to deprive the owner of the offending ship of the benefit of the limited liability act, and that state legislatures could not change or modify the general maritime law. In The Max Morris (1890) 137 U.S. 1, 14, sub nom. The Max Morris v. Curry, 34 L. ed. 586, 589, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 29, the question for decision was, whether, in a court of admiralty, in a case where recovery was sought for personal injuries to the libellant arising from his negligence, concurring with that of the vessel, 'any damages can be awarded, or whether the libel must be dismissed, according to the rule in common-law cases.' (p. 8, L. ed. p. 587, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 30.) It was held (p. 15, L. ed. p. 589, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 33) that 'the mere fact of the negligence of the libellant as partly occasioning the injuries to him, when they also occurred partly through the negligence of the officers of the vessel, does not debar him entirely from a recovery.' In The J. E. Rumbell (1893) 148 U.S. 1, 17, 37 L. ed. 345, 349, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 498, it was held that any priority given by a state statute, or by decisions in common law or in equity, to a mortgage upon a vessel as against a claim for supplies and necessaries furnished to the vessel in her home port, was immaterial, 'and that the admiralty courts of the United States, enforcing the lien because it is maritime in its nature, arising upon a maritime contract, must give it the rank to which it is entitled by the principles of the maritime and edmiralty law.'

True, it is well settled that in certain cases where a lien is given by a state statute, the admiralty courts will enforce rights so conferred when not in absolute conflict with the admiralty law. The Lottawanna (1874) 21 Wall. 558, sub nom. Rodd v. Heartt, 22 L. ed. 654. Moreover, it has been decided that although at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, in courts of admiralty as in courts of common law, a cause of action for a personal injury abated by the death of the injured party, nevertheless, when, by a state statute, a right of recovery in such a case was conferred, the admiralty courts would recognize and administer the appropriate relief. The Albert Dumois (1900) 177 U.S. 257-259, 44 L. ed. 761, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 595, and cases cited. But such cases afford no foundation for the proposition that state laws or decisions can deprive an individual of a right of recovery for a maritime wrong which, under the general principles of the admiralty law, he undoubtedly possessed, and can destroy the symmetry and efficiency of that law by engrafting therein a principle which violates the imperative command of such law that admiralty courts must administer redress for every maritime wrong in every case where they have jurisdictional power over the person by whom the wrong has been committed. The cases in question, on the contrary, but illustrate the alacrity with which admiralty courts adopt statutes granting the right to relief where otherwise it could not be administered by a maritime court, and they hence do not support the contention that there is a want of power in admiralty courts to give redress in every case within their jurisdiction where the duty to do so is imposed by the maritime law. This distinction is well illustrated by the ruling in The Max Morris (1890) 137 U.S. 1, 14, sub nom. The Max Morris v. Curry, 34L. ed. 586, 589, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 29. There it was asserted that by the universal principles of the common law, as well as of the local laws of the states, no right to recover for a wrong committed could be enforced in favor of one who had himself contributed to the producing cause of the injury. Whilst the premise was conceded the soundness of the inference deduced from it was denied, and it was held that as by the general principles of the maritime law a measure of relief would be afforded to a person who had suffered a wrong, even although he had contributed tributed thereto, it was the duty of the admiralty courts to grant relief in accordance with the principles of the maritime law.

It being then settled that the local decisions of one or more states cannot, as a matter of authority, abrogate the maritime law, we are brought to consider whether, under the maritime law, the city of New York was liable for the injury inflicted by the fire-boat. As a prerequisite to a solution of this question it is necessary to determine what relation the city of New York bore to the fireboat and those in control of it.

The fire department of the city of New York, as constituted when the collision in question occurred, was established by chapter 410 of the New York Laws of 1882. In the statute it was declared (§ 27) that 'for all purposes the local administration and government of the city and county of New York shall continue to be in, and be performed by, the corporation aforesaid,' i. e. 'the mayor, aldermen, and commonalty of the city of New York.' By § 34 were established eleven enumerated 'departments in said city,' among them a fire department. By §§ 40, 106, and 108, provision was made for a board of fire commissioners, to act as the executive head of the department, to be nominated by the mayor, by and with the consent of the board of aldermen, and to be removable for cause by the mayor, subject to the approval of the governor of the state. The ministerial direction of the affairs of the department, including the preservation of the real and personal property used by it, was confided to this board of commissioners, but the city was made liable for all expenses of maintenance and operation, and was the owner of all the property of the fire department. §§ 424 et seq. In addition to making the city liable for all expenses connected with the maintenance and operation of the department, it was provided in § 450 of the statute that any damage caused by the authorized destruction of buildings to stay the progress of fire should be borne by the city of New York.

In order to emphasize these material facts we repeat that it unquestionably appears that the fire department of the city of New York was an integral branch of the local administration and government of that city. The ministerial officers who directed the affairs of the department were selected and paid by the city; all the expenses of the department of every kind and nature were to be borne by the city, which was bound by all contracts made for such purpose; all the property of the department, including the fire-boats, belonged to the city; and the city was liable in case of an authorized destruction on land of property of individuals to prevent the spread of a conflagration.

That, upon such a state of things, the relation of master and servant existed between the city of New York and those in charge of the fire-boat is clear. And that under the general maritime law, where the relation of master and servant exists, an owner of an offending vessel committing a maritime tort is responsible, under the rule of respondeat superior, is elementary. Thorp v. Hammond (1871) 12 Wall. 408, 20 L. ed. 419; The Plymouth (1866) 3 Wall. 35, sub nom. Hough v. Western Transp. Co. 18 L. ed. 128.

It is not gainsaid that, as a general rule, municipal corporations, like individuals, may be sued; in other words, that they are amenable to judicial process for the purpose of compelling performance of their obligations. True it is, that under the general law, growing out of the public nature of their duties, where judgments or decrees are entered against municipal corporations, such judgments or decrees may not, as a matter of public policy, be enforced by the levy on property held by the corporation for public uses. Meriwether v. Garrett (1880) 102 U.S. 472, 26 L. ed. 197.

As a result of the general principle by which a municipal corporation has the capacity to sue and be sued, it follows that there is no limitation taking such corporations out of the reach of the process of a court of admiralty, as such courts, within the limit of their jurisdiction, may reach persons having a general capacity to stand in judgment. True, also, where admiralty process has been set in motion against a municipal corporation, public policy, it has been held, restrains a seizure of property used for public purposes by such corporation. The Fidelity (1879) 16 Blatchf. 569, Fed. Cas. No. 4,758. This conclusion, however, is but the application of the exception as to the mode of execution of a judgment or decree against such a corporation, to which we have referred, and its existence in the admiralty law in all cases has also been denied. The Oyster Police Steamers of Maryland (1887) 31 Fed. Rep. 763. Which of these conflicting conclusions, as to the exception in question, is correct we are not called upon on the present record to determine, since no levy of process upon the fire-boat was made or attempted to be made.

The contention is, although the corporation had general capacity to stand in judgment, and was therefore subject to the process of a court of admiralty, nevertheless the admiralty court would afford no redress against the city for the tort complained of, because under the local law the corporation as to some of its administrative acts was entitled to be considered as having a dual capacity, one private, the other public or governmental, and as to all maritime wrongs committed in the performance of the latter functions it should be treated by the maritime law as a sovereign. But the maritime law affords no justification for this contention, and no example is found if such law, where one who is subject to suit and amenable to process is allowed to escape liability for the commission of a maritime tort, upon the theory relied upon. We, of course, concede that where maritime torts have been committed by the vessels of a sovereign, and complaint has been made in a court of admiralty, that court has declined to exercise jurisdiction, but this was solely because of the immunity of sovereignty from suit in its own courts. So, also, where, in a court of admiralty of one sovereign, redress is sought for a tort committed by a vessel of war of another nation, it has been held that as by the rule of international comity, the sovereign of another country was not subject to be impleaded, no redress could be given. Both of these rules, however, proceed upon the hypothesis of the want of a person or property before the court over whom jurisdiction can be exerted. As a consequence, the doctrine above stated rests, not upon the supposed want of power in courts of admiralty to redress a wrong committed by one over whom such courts have adequate jurisdiction, but alone on their inability to give redress in a case where jurisdiction over the person or property cannot be exerted. In other words, the distinction between the two classes of cases is that which exists between the refusal of a court to grant relief because it has no jurisdiction to do so, and the failure of a court to afford redress in a case where the wrong is admitted and jurisdictional authority over the wrongdoer is undoubted.

The decisions of this court clearly expound the principles we have stated. The Exchange v. M'Faddon (1812) 7 Cranch, 116, 3 L. ed. 287, involved the right of a court of admiralty to enforce, by a proceeding in rem, an alleged maritime claim against a vessel of war of a foreign nation. The right to relief was denied exclusively because of a want of jurisdiction over the foreign sovereign or his property.

The Siren (1869) 7 Wall, 153, sub nom. The Siren v. United States, 19 L. ed. 130, involved the liability of a prize ship in the possession and control of the officers of the United States for an injury inflicted by a collision of the ship with another vessel, averred to have been occasioned by the negligent management of those in charge of the prize ship. In considering the power of the court to adjudicate the controversy, the court said (p. 155, L. ed. p. 131):

'For the damages occasioned by collision of vessels at sea a claim is created against the vessel in fault, in favor of the injured party. This claim may be enforced in the admiralty by a proceeding in rem, except where the vessel is the property of the United States. In such case the claim exists equally as if the vessel belonged to a private citizen, but for reasons of public policy, already stated, cannot be enforced by direct proceedings against the vessel. It stands, in that respect, like a claim against the government, incapable of enforcement without its consent, and unavailable for any purpose.

'In England, when the damage is inflicted by a vessel belonging to the Crown, it was formerly held that the remedy must be sought against the officer in command of the offending ship. But the present practice is to file a libel in rem, upon which the court directs the registrar to write to the lords of the admiralty requesting an appearance on behalf of the Crown-which is generally given-when the subsequent proceedings to decree are conducted as in other cases. Coote's New Admiralty Practice, 31. In the case of The Athol, 1 W. Rob. Adm. 382, the court refused to issue a monition to the lords of the admiralty to appear in a suit for damage by collision, occasioned to a vessel by a ship of the Crown; but the lords having subsequently directed an appearance to be entered, the court proceeded with the case, and awarded damages. As no warrant issues in these cases for the arrest of the vessels of the Crown, and no bail given on the appearance, it is insisted that they are brought simply to ascertain the extent of the damages, and that the decrees are little more than awards, so far as the government is concerned. This may be the only result of the suits, but they are instituted and conducted on the hypothesis that claims against the offending vessels are created by the collision. The Clara, Swabey Adm. 3, and The Swallow, Swabey Adm. 30. The vessels are not arrested and taken into custody by the marshal, for the reasons of public policy already stated, and for the further reason that it is to be presumed that the government will at once satisfy a decree rendered by its own tribunals in a case in which it has voluntarily appeared.'

As the prize vessel had been condemned and sold at the instance of the United States, and the proceeds were in the registry of the court for distribution, the court gave the relief sought against the proceeds of the sale, because the facts stated established, not only the liability of the offending ship, but also furnished the basis of jurisdiction.

The same principle was applied in the later case of The Davis (1869) 10 Wall. 15, sub nom. United States v. Douglas, 19 L. ed. 875, where it was held that personal property of the United States on board of a vessel for transportation from one point to another was liable to a lien for salvage service rendered in saving the property from a peril of the sea, and that such lien might be enforced by a proceeding in rem, when the process of the court might be used without disturbing the possession of the government.

The statement of the maritime law of England on the subject now being considered, made in The Siren (1869) 7 Wall. 153, sub nom. The Siren v. United States, 19 L. ed. 130, makes it clear that, in harmony with the maritime law of this country, the fact that a wrong has been committed by a public vessel of the Crown affords no ground for contending that no liability arises, because of the public nature of the vessel, although, it may be, in consequence of a want of jurisdiction over the sovereign, redress cannot be given. This is well illustrated by the cases to which we shall now refer.

The Athol (1842) 1 W. Rob. Adm. 374, was the case of a British troopship which had run down a brig in the English channel. The lords of the admiralty having refused a petition for compensation, the owner of the brig applied to the high court of admiralty to decree a monition to issue against those officials. In declining to issue the monition, for want of power, Dr. Lushington said (p. 382):

'Under the circumstances of this case then, both upon principle and the authority of decided cases, I must decline to issue the monition as prayed. At the same time, sitting here as a judge, in a court of justice, I am bound to express the opinion that I cannot apprehend the high personages who represent Her Majesty in her office of admiralty will avoid doing justice, or that upon a due consideration, they will take upon themselves to say that they will be themselves the exclusive judges upon the merits of the present case. Whether they shall appear or not, is not a matter for this court to determine. I decline to grant the monition.'

The lords of the admiralty subsequently, directed that an appearance should be made on behalf of The Athol, and as by this act the court had jurisdiction to determine the controversy, it did so, held The Athol to have been in fault, and, despite the public nature of the vessel, 'the damages and costs were pronounced for.'

The Parlement Belge (1879) L. R. 4 Prob. Div. 129, was an action instituted on behalf of the owners of a steam tug against the steamship Parlement Belge and her freight to recover damages sustained by the tug in a collision with the steamship. The latter vessel was, at the time of the collision and when the action was instituted, a public vessel of the government of the sovereign state of Belgium, navigated and employed by and in the possession of such government, and officered by officers of the royal Belgium navy, holding commissions from His Majesty the King of Belgium, and in the pay and service of his government. Besides carrying the mails between Dover and Ostend. The Parlement Belge carried passengers and merchandise, and was employed in earning passagemoney and freight. Sir Robert Phillimore declared (p. 144) that the case was one of first impression, and to be decided upon general principles and the analogies of law, rather than upon any direct precedent, and it was held that The Parlement Belge did not come within the category of a ship of war or a pleasure vessel belonging to the Crown of Belgium, and was not exempt from the process of the court. On appeal, however, (1880) (L. R. 5 Prob. Div. 197,) it was held that the admiralty court was concluded by the declaration of the sovereign authority that the vessel was a public vessel of the state, and, further, that the mere fact of the ship having been used subordinately for trading purposes did not take away the immunity attaching to the public vessel of an independent sovereignty, and that the vessel could not be proceeded against.

It results that, in the maritime law, the public nature of the service upon which a vessel is engaged at the time of the commission of a maritime tort affords no immunity from liability in a court of admiralty, where the court has jurisdiction. This being so, it follows that as the municipal corporation of the city of New York, unlike a sovereign, was subject to the jurisdiction of the court, the claimed exemption from liability asserted in the case at bar, because of the public nature of the service upon which the fire-boat was engaged-even if such claim for the purposes of the case be conceded-was without foundation in the maritime law, and therefore afforded no reason for denying redress in a court of admiralty for the wrong which the courts below both found to have been committed.

And these consideration would dispose of the case, were it not for two subordinate contentions which we deem it essential to notice before reaching a conclusion. The first, as expressed in the brief of counsel, is that the injury to the Linda Parke should have been held to have been the result of inevitable accident, because 'whatever was done in regard to the navigation of the New Yorker was done in the excitement of the moment, and in view of the extent of, not only the possible, but probable, spread of the fire, under pressure of necessity.' Pausing for a moment to analyze this contention, it results that it involves the self-destructive assumptions that the maritime law, in order to render the person and property of the individual safe, in case of an emergency arising from the happening of fire, causes both the person and property of the individual to be unsafe, since without necessity and through negligence injury can be inflicted or destruction be brought about, without power, in the admiralty courts, to redress the wrong, although the wrongdoer be amenable to their jurisdiction. But, while it is true that the emergency of fire was an element to be considered in determining whether or not those in charge of the fire-boat were negligent on the occasion in question, since negligence is relative, that is, depends upon whether there was an absence of the care which it was the duty to exercise under the particular circumstances, yet, it does not follow that the emergency of fire exempted from the exercise of such due care as the occasion required towards property which was in the path of the fire-boat as it approached the slip for the purpose of getting into a position where it might assist in extinguishing the fire in question.

This principle has been heretofore applied by this court. Thus, in The Clarita (1875) 23 Wall. 1, sub nom. The Clara Clarita v. Cox, 23 L. ed. 146, a tug boat, whose business it was to give relief to vessels on fire, in towing a vessel on fire from out of a dock, used a manilla hawser. While so engaged the hawser was burnt, and the burning vessel getting loose from the tug, drifted, and set fire to another vessel. It was urged upon the court 'that it is the interest of shipping that an enterprising company, like the one which owned this tug-a company which at great expense fits up a tug with powerful steam pumps, and keeps the vessel ready with her fires banked, night and day, to move on a moment's notice everywhere about a harbor for useful service-should be encouraged;' and the emergency of the occasion it was claimed ought to exempt from liability. In holding that the tug was in fault this court said (p. 15, L. ed. p. 151):

'Even ordinary experience and prudence would have suggested that the part of the hawser made fast to the burning ferryboat should be chain, and that it would be unsafe to use a hawser made of manilla. Where the danger is great the greater should be the precaution, as prudent men in great emergencies employ their best exertions to ward off the danger. Whether they had a chain hawser on board or not does not appear, but sufficient does appear to satisfy the court that one of sufficient length to have prevented the disaster might easily have been procured, even if they were not supplied with such an appliance.'

And in accord with this doctrine is the local law of New York. Thus, in Farley v. New York (1897) 152 N. Y. 222, 46 N. E. 506, in speaking of the obligation to exercise due care devolving upon the driver of a fire engine, while responding to an alarm of fire, the court said (p. 227, N. E. p. 507):

'The conduct of the plaintiff was for the consideration of the jury. . . . He was bound in driving to exercise the care which a prudent person would ordinarily exercise under similar circumstances. It was for the jury to say whether he was alert on this occasion, watchful to avoid obstructions which might be in his path, and whether there was any omission on his part of reasonable circumspection and diligence which contributed to the accident.'

And indeed, although there are a number of cases holding that a municipal corporation is not liable for a positive injury to the person or property of an individual inflicted by its fire department, they do not rest upon the doctrine of emergency, which we are now considering. On the contrary, all these cases but expound the theory of sovereign attribute, which we have seen does not control the maritime law, and cannot justify an admiralty court in refusing to redress a wrong where it has jurisdiction to do so.

The remaining suggestion is that as a proceeding in rom could not have been maintained against the fire-boat because it was the property of the city of New York, and therefore an instrumentality employed in the performance of its municipal functions, no action in personam was available to the owner of the injured vessel. As we at the outset said, there is contrariety of opinion in the lower admiralty courts of the United States as to whether the rule of the courts of common law which exempts from seizure the property of a municipality devoted to its municipal uses obtains in a court of admiralty of the United States. This conflict, as we have also said, we deem it unnecessary to determine in this case, because, even if it be conceded that the fire-boat could not have been seized by process from a court of admiralty, the proposition that, therefore, the owner could not be called upon, in an action in personam, to respond for the damages inflicted by the boat, is without foundation. Of course, as has been repeatedly declared by this court, by the general admiralty law of this country, subject to the exemption from process possessed by the national government, a ship, by whomsoever owned or navigated, is liable for an actionable injury resulting from the negligence of the master and crew of such vessel. The John G. Stevens (1898) 170 U.S. 113, 120, 42 L. ed. 969, 972, 973, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 544, and cases cited, 122, L. ed. 973, Sup. Ct. Rep. 548. A liability of the owners in personam, however, is not dependent upon ability to maintain a proceeding in rem because of the maritime tort. A maritime lien may not exist in a cause of collision, for instance, when the thing occasioning the tort was not the subject of a maritime lien (The Rock Island Bridge (1867) 6 Wall. 213, sub nom. Galena, D. D. & M. Packet Co. v. Rock Island R. Bridge, 18 L. ed. 753), or such a lien, if it exist, may not be enforceable, and so may be said to render the offending thing not the subject of a maritime lien, because of the ownership and possession of such thing being in the government of the nation. The Siren (1869) 7 Wall. 152, sub nom. The Siren v. United States, 19 L. ed. 129. Or the remedy in rem may not be available owing to the offending thing being actually in another country, or because of its loss intermediate the collision and the institution of legal proceedings.

A recovery can be had in personam, however, for a maritime tort when the relation existing between the owner and the master and crew of the vessel, at the time of the negligent collision, was that of master and servant. Thorp v. Hammond (1871) 12 Wall. 408, 20 L. ed. 419; The Plymouth (1866) 3 Wall. 35. sub nom. Hough v. Western Transp. Co. 18 L. ed. 128.

The prerequisite in admiralty to the right to resort to a libel in personam is the existence of a cause of action, maritime in its nature. That a collision upon navigable waters of the United States, between vessels, by the fault of one of such vessels, creates a maritime tort and a cause of action within the jurisdiction of a court of admiralty, is, of course, unquestioned. And, as said by this court in Re Louisville Underwriters (1890) 134 U.S. 488, 490, 33 L. ed. 991, 993, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 587:

'By the ancient and settled practice of courts of admiralty, a libel in personam may be maintained for any cause within their jurisdiction, wherever a monition can be served upon the libelee, or an attachment made of any personal property or credits of his.'

Because we conclude that the rule of the local law in the state of New York-conceding it to be as held by the circuit court of appeals-does not control the maritime law, and, therefore, affords no ground for sustaining the nonliability of the city of New York in the case at bar, we must not be understood as conceding the correctness of the doctrine by which a municipal corporation, as to the discharge of its administrative duties, is treated as having two distinct capacities, the one private or corporate, and the other governmental or sovereign, in which latter it may inflict a direct and positive wrong upon the person or property of a citizen without power in the courts to afford redress for such wrong. That question, from the aspect of both the common and municipal law, was considered by this court in Weightman v. Washington (1861) 1 Black, 39, 17 L. ed. 52; Barnes v. District of Columbia (1875) 91 U.S. 540, 23 L. ed. 440; and in District of Columbia v. Woodbury (1890) 136 U.S. 450, 34 L. ed. 472, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 990. And although this opinion is confined to the controlling effect of the admiralty law, we do not intend to intimate the belief that the common law which benignly above all considers the rights of the individual, yet gives its sanction to a principle with denies the duty of courts to protect the rights of the individual in a case where they have jurisdiction to do so. For these reasons we are sedulous to say that we must not be understood as in anywise doubting the correctness of the doctrines expounded by this court in the cases just cited, or as even impliedly approving contentions which may conflict with the principles announced in those cases.

Our conclusion is that the district court rightly decided that the mayor, aldermen, and commonalty of the city of New York were liable for the damages sustained by the owner of the Linda Park.

The decree of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed, and the decree of the District Court is affirmed.


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