Williamson v. Barrett/Opinion of the Court

Williamson v. Barrett
Opinion of the Court by Samuel Nelson
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

54 U.S. 101

Williamson  v.  Barrett

This is a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Ohio.

The plaintiffs in the court below, the defendants here, who were the owners of the steamboat Major Barbour, brought an action against the defendants, the owners of the steamboat Paul Jones, to recover damages occasioned by a collision upon the Ohio River on the 3d February, 1848.

The Major Barbour was descending the river at the time, and the Paul Jones ascending, the latter heavily laden and of much larger size than the former.

Evidence was given by the plaintiffs tending to show, that their boat was about in the middle of the river at the time the collision took place; that the defendants' boat was ascending the Indiana shore, and that a short time before the collision she suddenly changed her course and left the shore, running across the river into the Major Barbour, causing the damage in question. While on the part of the defendants, it was claimed, and evidence given to show, that the plaintiffs' boat was descending near the Indiana shore, and that the collision occurred near that shore, and that the plaintiffs' boat a short time before it happened suddenly turned out from the shore and ran across the bow of the Paul Jones, causing the damage.

Evidence was also given tending to show that the engine of the plaintiffs' boat was stopped, and the boat floated as soon as the danger was discovered, and for some time previous to the collision, but, it was admitted she did not back her engines, and it was claimed that she was not bound to do so, according to the rules and usages of the navigation. While, on the part of the defendants, it was claimed, and evidence given to show, that the Paul Jones, some time before the collision, stopped her engines, and reversed the same to back the boat, and had made from one to three revolutions back, and was actually backing at the time of the collision; and also that the engines of the plaintiffs' boat were not stopped sufficiently early, and owing to that, and not attempting to back her engines, she contributed to the collision.

Evidence was further given tending to show, that boats navigating the Ohio river were bound to observe the following rules in passing each other: The boat descending, in case of apprehended difficulties, or collision, was bound to stop her engines, and float, at a suitable distance, so as to stop her headway; and the boat ascending, to make the proper manoeuvre to pass freely.

When the evidence closed, the counsel for the defendants requested the court to instruct the jury, that the plaintiffs ought not to recover, if the collision could have been avoided by reversing the engines and backing their boat, in addition to stopping and floating; and, that the master was bound to use all the means in his power to prevent a collision.

And thereupon, the court among other things charged, that if the Major Barbour was in her proper track for a descending boat, near the middle of the river, and the Paul Jones in ascending the river was in her proper track near the Indiana shore, and the latter turned out of her proper course across the river or quartering, as stated by some of the witnesses, so as to threaten a collision; and that as soon as discovered, the Major Barbour stopped her engine, rang her bell, and floated down the stream, as the custom of the river required, leaving the ascending boat the choice of sides to pass her, and this being the law of the river, she was not, on the near approach of the boat, required to back her engine, as that might bring her in contact with the other boat. She had a right to presume the Paul Jones did not intend to run directly into her. And that, if any injury was done to the Major Barbour, the plaintiffs' boat, under such circumstances, by the Paul Jones running into her, the plaintiffs were entitled to recover.

The court further charged, that, if the jury should find for the plaintiffs, they ought to give such damages as would remunerate them for the loss necessarily incurred in raising the boat, and in repairing her; and also for the use of her during the time necessary to make the repairs, and fit her for business.

I. As to the first branch of the instruction. In order properly to appreciate it, it is material to notice the relative position of the two boats at the time of the collision, which is assumed in the instruction, and in respect to which circumstances it was given, and, as claimed by the plaintiffs, the jury would be warranted in finding. For, the principle stated was not laid down as an abstract proposition, or rule of navigation, but one applicable to the state of the case specially referred to as supposed to have been made out upon the evidence.

The case was this: The plaintiffs' boat was in her proper track, descending the river near the middle, while the defendants' was ascending the same in her proper track near the Indiana shore. And as the boats were approaching each other in this relative position, the Paul Jones, the defendants' boat, changed her course across the river towards the middle of the same, somewhat in an oblique direction according to some of the witnesses, and thereby endangering a collision. That as soon as this was discovered, the Major Barbour, the plaintiffs' boat, stopped her engine, rang her bell and floated, as the custom of the navigation required, leaving to the other boat the option to pass either her bow, or stern.

It was upon this state of facts, the court instructed the jury that the plaintiffs' boat was not bound to make the additional manoeuvre of backing her engines, as that might, under the circumstances, have brought about the collision she was endeavoring to avoid; and, that for the injury done by the Paul Jones running into her, the plaintiffs' were entitled to recover.

The counsel for the defendants had requested the court to instruct the jury, that, if the plaintiffs' boat by backing her engines in addition to stopping, and floating, could have avoided the collision, she was bound to do so, and the defendants were not liable, as the master was responsible for the use of all the means in his power to prevent it. And the error, supposed to have been committed, consists in the refusal to give this instruction, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, and in giving that which we have stated.

It is not to be denied, that the Major Barbour, according to the position of the boats as assumed in the instruction, had observed strictly the custom, and usages of the river. But it is claimed, that a state of facts had occurred from the position of the Paul Jones, whether by the fault of those in command or not, that made it the duty of the master of the plaintiffs' boat not sternly to have adhered to this usage, but, to have made the movement insisted upon, if by so doing the accident could have been avoided. This position is founded upon an exception to the general law of the navigation as modified by the circumstances of the particular case, by which the master of the vessel not in fault is bound to make every fair and reasonable effort, in the emergency, within his power, from due exercise of skill and good seamanship, to avoid, if possible, the impending calamity. Upon the water as upon the land, the law recognizes no inflexible rule, the neglect of which by one party, will dispense with the exercise of ordinary care and caution in the other. A man is not at liberty to cast himself upon an obstruction which has been made by the fault of another, and avail himself of it, if he does not use common and ordinary caution to avoid it. One person being in fault will not dispense with another's using ordinary care for himself.

And, undoubtedly, if a state of facts had been shown in this case, arising out of the circumstances attending the sudden change of the course of the Paul Jones, from which an inference might fairly have been drawn, that it was the duty of the master of the Major Barbour not only to have stopped her engines, but to have reversed them, and backed his boat, in order to avoid the danger, and, that by so doing it might have been avoided, the point should have been put to the jury, with the instruction, if they so found, the plaintiffs could not recover. Before, however, any such instruction could be properly claimed, the defendants must have made out a state of the case to which it was applicable, and from which the omission to make the movement laid a foundation for the inference of fault on the part of the Major Barbour.

The fact that it would have prevented the catastrophe is not enough; circumstances must be shown that would make it the duty of the master to give the order.

There is no rule of law or of the river that imposes upon him, in such an emergency, the obligation, to give a particular direction to his vessel, simply because it might avoid the danger. The question in all such cases is, whether, in the exercise of due care and caution in the management of her at the time in any given case, such a direction should have been given. If it should, then he is chargeable with the consequences of the neglect.

Applying these principles to the state of facts in respect to which the instruction in question was given, we think it will be found that no error was committed.

The defendants' boat had suddenly turned out of the accustomed track, which was along the Indiana shore, apparently for the purpose, if she had any in view, of crossing to the other side; and, as soon as this change was discovered, the engines of the descending boat, were stopped, allowing her to float according to the usage in such cases, for the purpose of enabling the other to pass across her bow or stern, as she might elect.

Now, it could not be known, at least there is nothing in the case to show that it was known to the master of the descending boat, which of the two courses open to her the other intended to adopt. If she determined to pass his bow, undoubtedly, reversing the engines and backing his boat would have been a very proper manoeuvre; but if she determined to cross his stern, the movement would have been improper, and might have been disastrous. Either a forward or backward movement under the circumstances would have embarrassed the operations of the other boat, as the master had a right to assume the one descending would adhere to the usage of the river, and leave him free to make choice of his course in passing upon that assumption.

Under these circumstances, we think it clear it would have been erroneous to have instructed the jury, that the master of the Major Barbour was bound not only to stop her engines, but to back her, if, by so doing, the danger could have been avoided. For before the neglect to make that movement could be charged as a fault, it should have appeared that the master knew the colliding boat intended to pass her bow. In the absence of such knowledge, her proper position was that which the usage of the river prescribed, namely, to stop her engines and float, leaving the other the choice to pass across either her bow or stern. This was his plain duty, not only from the law of the river, but due, under the circumstances, to the other boat, as affording her the most favorable opportunity to extricate herself from the danger in which she had become involved by her own fault in carelessly leaving her proper track.

II. As to the question of damages.

The jury were instructed, if they found for the plaintiffs, to give damages that would remunerate them for the loss necessarily incurred in raising the boat, and repairing her; and also, for the use of the boat during the time necessary to make the repairs, and fit her for business.

By the use of the boat we understand what she would produce to the plaintiffs by the hiring or chartering of her to run upon the river in the business in which she had been usually engaged.

The general rule in regulating damages in cases of collision is to allow the injured party an indemnity to the extent of the loss sustained. This general rule is obvious enough; but there is a good deal of difficulty in stating the grounds upon which to arrive, in all cases, at the proper measure of that indemnity.

The expenses of raising the boat, and of repairs may, of course, be readily ascertained, and in respect to the repairs, no deduction is to be made, as in insurance cases, for the new materials in place of the old. The difficulty lies in estimating the damage sustained by the loss of the service of the vessel while she is undergoing the repairs.

That an allowance short of some compensation for this loss would fail to be an indemnity for the injury is apparent.

This question was directly before the court of admiralty in England, in the case of the Gazelle, decided by Dr. Lushington, in 1844. 2 W. Robinson, 279. That was a case of collision, and in deciding it, the court observed, 'that the party who had suffered the injury is clearly entitled to an adequate compensation for any loss he may sustain for the detention of the vessel during the period which is necessary for the completion of the repairs, and furnishing the new articles.'

In fixing the amount of the damages to be paid for the detention, the court allowed the gross freight, deducting so much as would, in ordinary cases, be disbursed on account of the ship's expenses in earning it.

A case is referred to, decided in the common-law courts, in which the gross freight was allowed without any deduction for expenses, which was disapproved as inequitable and exceeding an adequate compensation, and the qualification we have stated laid down.

This rule may afford a very fair indemnity in cases where the repairs are completed within the period usually occupied in the voyage in which the freight is to be earned. But, if a longer period is required, it obviously falls short of an adequate allowance. Neither will it apply where the vessel is not engaged in earning freight at the time. The principle, however, governing the court in adopting the freight which the vessel was in the act of earning, as a just measure of compensation in the case, is one of general application. It looks to the capacity of the vessel to earn freight, for the benefit of the owner, and consequent loss sustained while deprived of her service. In other words, to the amount she would earn him on hire.

It is true, in that case, the ship was engaged in earning freight at the time of the collision; and the loss, therefore, more fixed, and certain than in the case where she is not at the time under a charter-party, and where her earnings must in some measure depend upon the contingency of obtaining for her employment. If, however, we look to the demand in the market for vessels of the description that has been disabled, and to the price there, which the owner could obtain or might have obtained for her hire as the measure of compensation, all this uncertainty disappears. If there is no demand for the employment, and, of course, no hire to be obtained, no compensation for the detention during the repairs will be allowed, as no loss would be sustained.

But, if it can be shown, that the vessel might have been chartered during the period of the repairs, it is impossible to deny that the owner has not lost in consequence of the damage, the amount which she might have thus earned.

The market price, therefore, of the hire of the vessel applied as a test of the value of the service will be, if not as certain as in the case where she is under a charter-party, at least, so certain that, for all practical purposes in the administration of justice, no substantial distinction can be made. It can be ascertained as readily, and with as much precision as the price of any given commodity in the market; and affords as clear a rule for estimating the damage sustained on account of the loss of her service, as exists in the case of damage to any other description of personal property, of which the party has been deprived.

In the case of the Gazelle, for ought that appears, the allowance of the freight afforded a full indemnity for the detention of the vessel while undergoing the repairs. This would be so, as already stated, if they were made within the period she would have been engaged in earning it. If it were otherwise, it is certain, that the indemnity allowed fell short of the rule laid down under which it was made, which was, that the party was entitled to an adequate compensation for any loss he might sustain for the detention of the vessel during the period which was necessary for the completion of the repairs and furnishing the new articles.

The allowance of the freight she was earning at the time was but a mode of arriving at the loss in the particular case under the general rule thus broadly stated; and afforded, doubtless, full indemnity.

We are of opinion, therefore, that the rule of damages laid down by the court below was the correct one, and is properly applicable in all similar cases. There was no question made in respect to the freight of the vessel, and hence the general principle stated was applicable, irrespective of this element, as influencing the result.

There were some other questions raised in the case of a technical character, and urged on the argument. But we deem it sufficient to say, that they are so obviously untenable, that it is not important to notice them specially.

We are of opinion, therefore, the judgment of the court below was right, and should be affirmed.

Mr. Justice CATRON dissented, with whom Mr. Chief Justice TANEY, and Mr. Justice DANIEL concurred.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Ohio, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered, and adjudged, by this court, that the judgment of said Circuit Court, in this cause, be, and the same is hereby affirmed with costs, and damages at the rate of six per centum, per annum.


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).