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United States Supreme Court

83 U.S. 522

Steamboat Company  v.  Chase

ERROR to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

A statute of the State just named, [1] passed in October, 1853, and relating to common carriers by means of steamboats, enacts:

'SECTION 16. If the life of any person crossing upon a public highway with reasonable care, shall be lost by reason of the negligence or carelessness of such common carriers, or by the unfitness or negligence or carelessness of their servants or agents, in this State, such common carriers shall be liable to damages for the injury caused by the loss of life of such person, to be recovered by action on the case, for the benefit of the husband or widow and next of kin of the deceased person.

'SECTION 21. In all cases in which the death of any persons ensues from injury inflicted by the wrongful act of another, and in which an action for damages might have been maintained at the common law had death not ensued, the person inflicting such injury shall be liable to an action for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person, to be recovered by action on the case for the use of his or her husband, widow, children, or next of kin,' &c.

These statutory provisions being in force in Rhode Island, but no such right enforceable through the admiralty having been given by Congress, a steamer owned by the American Steamboat Company, common carriers upon Narraganset Bay (a public highway, and tidal waters running between Providence and Newport, both within Rhode Island), negligently ran over one George Cook crossing upon that bay with reasonable care, in a sailboat, and killed him. Thereupon Chase, administrator of Cook, brought suit against the steamboat company in one of the State courts of Rhode Island. The company set up that the court had not jurisdiction of the cause of action on the ground that under the Constitution of the United States-which ordains that

'The judicial power of the United States shall extend to ALL cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction'--

And under the ninth section of the Judiciary Act approved September 24th, 1789, which section says that

'The District Courts shall have exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common-law remedy when the common law is adequate to give it'--

exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was vested in the District Courts; that the courts of common law had only such jurisdiction of marine torts as was conferred by the saving clause in the ninth section of the act, and that actions for damages for loss of life did not come within the clause.

The court, however, sustained the jurisdiction; and verdict and judgment having been given for the plaintiff in $12,000, and the Supreme Court of the State having affirmed that judgment, the cause was removed to this court.

Messrs. J. A. Gardner and B. F. Thurston, for the plaintiff in error:

The question is, can a court of common law exercise jurisdiction, and give a remedy to a suitor for a consequential injury growing out of a marine tort, when no remedy for such injury exists in the admiralty?

Or, assuming that under the general jurisdiction of courts or admiralty cognizance of such action could be entertained by a district court of the United States, can a suitor have a remedy in a court of common law, when the right to such action is created by a State statute, passed subsequent to September 24th, 1789?

The obvious purpose of the Constitution and of the ninth section of the Judiciary Act, was to create a maritime court for the purpose of administering the universal law of the seas upon the basis of the civil system, known to maritime states, in distinction from a court familiar only with the limited jurisprudence of the common law system. Indeed, there is an obvious propriety in excluding the courts of common law from adjudicating upon subjects which are, from their nature, of admiralty cognizance, except to the extent recognized and permitted by the acts of Congress. A jury of landsmen unfamiliar with the rules and necessities of navigation, is imperfectly qualified to administer justice in a case, the turning-point in which, on the question of liability, can be settled only after a skilled and intelligent weighing of acts done by the respective parties in the exercise of a science requiring special knowledge and aptitude to understand.

As the grant of admiralty jurisdiction to the district courts embraces all subjects which from their natu e belong to the admiralty, and is exclusive in its general character, [2] it follows that the Federal and the State courts of common law have no other jurisdiction over the same subjects than that which is conferred by the saving clause of the ninth section of the act of 1789, which is in the words, 'saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common-law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it.' [3]

Now a statutory action for damages for loss of life resulting from a collision on navigable waters was unknown to both the common law and the admiralty in 1789. [4] It has not been since, by legislation of Congress, given to the admiralty. It, therefore, cannot have been saved to the common-law courts, either directly or by implication. Neither was such remedy saved if known to the admiralty and unknown to the common law. Not only are the remedies which are saved confined to common-law remedies, [5] but only such concurrent remedies are saved as the common law was then competent to give. In The Hine v. Trevor, [6] this court remarked:

'It could not have been the intention of Congress by the exception in that section, to give the suitor all such remedies as might afterwards be enacted by State statutes, for this would have enabled the States to make the jurisdiction of their courts concurrent in all cases, by simply providing a statutory remedy for all cases. Thus the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal courts would be defeated. In the act of 1845, where Congress does this, the language expresses it clearly. There is added 'any concurrent remedy which may be given by the State laws, where such steamer or other vessel is employed."

It is not to be presumed that it was the intention of Congress, at the moment that it was given to the Federal courts the exclusive cognizance of civil causes of admiralty jurisdiction, to save to the common-law courts any greater right than it conferred upon the admiralty courts. It is an existing common-law remedy which is saved to suitors for rights recognized by the admiralty.

It is important to observe that the privilege is a personal one to suitors. It is not a jurisdiction conferred on courts, or a power vested in State legislatures to create new rights of action, affecting subjects coming within the law of the sea. [7] Nowhere have the courts intimated that claims founded on marine torts, where the right of the party to proceed in rem, or in personam, in the admiralty to enforce such claims is not recognized, he can pursue such claims under a right given by State laws, in the common-law courts.

A suit to recover damages for loss of life resulting from a collision of two vessels on the seas is in its nature proper for admiralty cognizance. The suit is founded on the collision itself, a subject exclusively cognizable in the admiralty; and by the act of 1789, the derivative suit, if cognizable anywhere, should be exclusively cognizable in the admiralty. If, from an omission by Congress to create by a new statute a right to maintain it there, such a suit cannot be so proceeded in, then there still exists the same but no greater hardship on suitors than yet exists in several States, which have never, up to this day, in derogation of the common law, enacted statutes giving an action for damages where death results from a tort.

We insist, therefore, that the courts of common law have only the right to exercise a concurrent jurisdiction over such subjects of admiralty cognizance as they nder the Constitution and the acts of Congress are permitted to deal with at all. [8] With respect to subjects of recognized admiralty cognizance at the time of the passage of the act of 1789, the State legislatures could provide common-law remedies, and may by subsequent legislation enlarge or modify these remedies: preserving always the distinctive characteristics of common law procedure. But the case is different with respect to subjects not of recognized admiralty cognizance. And as yet no civil remedy to next of kin for damages consequent on an injury resulting in the loss of life of their relative is as yet known to the admiralty, Congress not yet having given any.

Mr. W. P. Sheffield, contra:

The words 'extend to' in the provision of the Federal Constitution, that the judicial power shall extent to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, do not imply that the nation shall exhaust this jurisdiction.

In addition, the saving clause of the 9th section of the Judiciary Act 'saves to suitors in all cases the right of a common-law remedy, when the common law is competent to give it.' Yet 'the clause was inserted,' says this court, [9] 'probably from abundant caution, lest the exclusive terms in which the power is confirmed in the District Court might be deemed to have taken away the concurrent remedy which had before existed.' The same right would have existed had no such clause been inserted. Indeed, the State must have the same right to exercise the reserved powers over her waters, to the extent that they are reserved, as she has to exercise the reserved powers of government over the land, and to have the same power to provide a remedy for injuries committed on tide-waters, within her limits, that she has to punish the like injuries committed on land by railroad companies who carry the mails over post routes; and have the same right to exercise a police authority generally to protect her citizens upon the water, as she has to exercise this authority to protect them upon land. The fact that the Federal government has the power to carry out the objects of the Federal government over water or land, does not abrogate the power of a State to protect her citizens. If indeed a State should legislate so as to obstruct the Federal authorities in attaining the ends for which the Federal government was created, such legislation would be void. So if this injury had been inflicted upon the high seas, or beyond the State jurisdiction, the State statute would not have applied to it. The jurisdiction of the States to enact laws punishing offences committed within the counties of States, upon waters, has been affirmed in numerous cases in this court. [10]

The Federalist (No. 45) says, 'The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which in the ordinary course of affairs concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.' The object of Rhode Island in passing this statute plainly was but to protect the lives of her citizens. It relates exclusively to persons, and does not apply to things which are generally the subject of admiralty jurisdiction. As it applies to the case at bar, it in no way interferes with any exercised power of the Federal government, to regulate commerce between the States or with foreign nations. It provides that the right of action which Cook would have had against the steamboat company, had they not killed him, should survive to his administrator, and provides nothing more. The effect of it is simply to take from careless persons that immunity from punishment which the common law tolerates, if carelessness destr ys its victims. If Cook had been injured, no matter how much, so long as had not been killed, no question would have been made here, that an action at common law could have been maintained by him under a State statute, for then the remedy at common law and the common-law remedy would have coincided. The statute providing that the right of action with the common-law remedy shall survive, cannot change the jurisdiction.

Reply: The grant of jurisdiction by the Constitution to the Federal courts of 'all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,' and the broad declaration by the act of 1789, that such jurisdiction is 'exclusive' of all State and Federal courts of common law, is poorly satisfied by the declaration that all that is thus exclusively vested is a right to proceed in rem, and that the common-law courts are only prohibited from making an inanimate object a defendant. If a form of procedure respecting a subject, and not the subject itself, is all that distinguishes the exclusive jurisdiction of courts of admiralty from courts of common law, then much learning and zeal in argument have been wasted before this court and by the bench, in the effort to define and settle the limits of these two ancient conflicting jurisdictions.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Revised Statutes, chapter 176. Of Actions.

^2  The Genesee Chief, 12 Howard, 457; The Hine, 4 Wallace, 556.

^3  The Moses Taylor, 4 Wallace, 412.

^4  Such action was not allowed in England until 9 Victoria (1846), when it was given by the statute known as Lord Campbell's act. There was no legislation on this subject by any of the United States earlier than the English statute, and most of the American statutes are, in substance, copies of the English statute.

^5  The Moses Taylor, 4 Wallace, 431.

^6  Ib. 572.

^7  The Belfast, 7 Wallace, 624.

^8  New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 6 Howard, 390; The Hine v. Trevor, 4 Wallace, 568.

^9  New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 6 Howard, 390.

^10  United States v. Bevans, 3 Wheaton, 386; Smith v. Maryland, 18 Howard, 71; Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheaton, 195.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).