119 U.S. 199 (1886), The Harrisburg

Citation:119 U.S. 199, 7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358
Party Name:THE HARRISBURG. [1] LEWIS and others, Owners, etc., v. RICKARDS and another, by her Next Friend.1
Case Date:November 15, 1886
Court:United States Supreme Court

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119 U.S. 199 (1886)

7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358


LEWIS and others, Owners, etc.,


RICKARDS and another, by her Next Friend.1

United States Supreme Court.

November 15, 1886

Appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.


[7 S.Ct. 140] Thos. Hart, Jr., for appellants, Lewis and others.

Henry Flanders, for appellees, Rickards and another.



This is a suit in rem begun, in the district court of the United States for the Eastern district of Pennsylvania, on the twenty-fifth of February, 1882, against the steamer Harrisburg, by the widow and child of [7 S.Ct. 141] Silas E. Rickards, deceased, to recover damages for his death, caused by the negligence of the steamer in a collision with the schooner Marietta Tilton, on the sixteenth of May, 1877, about 100 yards from the Cross Rip light-ship, in a sound of the sea embraced between the cost of Massachusetts and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, parts of the state of Massachusetts. The steamer was engaged, at the time of the collision, in the coasting trade, and belonged to the port of Philadelphia, where she

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was duly enrolled according to the laws of the United States. The deceased was first officer of the schooner, and a resident of Delaware, where his widow and child also resided when the suit was begun.

The statutes of Pennsylvania in force at the time of the collision provided that 'whenever death shall be occasioned by unlawful violence or negligence, and no suit for damages be brought by the party injured during his or her life,' 'the husband, widow, children, or parents of the deceased, and no other relative,' 'may maintain an action for and recover damages for the death thus occasioned.' 'The action shall be brought within one year after the death, and not thereafter.' Brightly's Purd. Dig. (11th Ed.) 1267, §§ 3-5; Act April 15, 1851, § 18; Act April 6, 1855, §§ 1, 2.

By a statute of Massachusetts relating to railroad corporations, it was provided that 'if, by reason of the negligence or carelessness of a corporation, or of the unfitness or gross negligence of its servants or agents while engaged in its business, the life of any person, being in the exercise of due diligence, * * * is lost, the corporation shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand nor less than five hundred dollars, to be recovered by indictment, and paid to the executor or administrator for the use of the widow and children. * * * Indictments against corporations for loss of life shall be prosecuted within one year from the injury causing the death.' Gen. St. Mass. 1860, c. 63, §§ 97-99; St. 1874, c. 372, § 163.

No innocent parties had acquired rights to or in the steamer between the date of the collision and the bringing of the suit.

Upon this state of facts the circuit court gave judgment against the steamer in the sum of $5,100, for the following reasons: '(1) In the admiralty courts of the United States the death of a human being upon the high seas, or waters navigable from the sea, caused by negligence, may be complained of as an injury, and the wrong redressed, under the general maritime law. (2) The right of the libelants does not depend upon the

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statute law of either the state of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, and the limitation of one year in the statutes of these states does not bar this proceeding. (3) Although an action in the state courts of either Massachusetts or Pennsylvania would be barred by the limitation expressed in the statutes of those states, the admiralty is not bound thereby, and in this case will not follow the period of limitation therein provided and prescribed. The drowning complained of was caused by the improper navigation, negligence, and fault of the said steamer, producing the collision aforesaid, and the libelants are entitled to recover. (4) As there are no innocent rights to be affected by the present proceedings, and no inconvenience will result to the respondents from the delay attending it, the action, if not governed by the statutes aforesaid, is not barred by the libelant's laches.' 15 F. 610.

From that decree this appeal was taken, and

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the question to be decided presents itself in three aspects, which may be stated as follows: (1) Can a suit in admiralty be maintained in the courts of the United States to recover damages for the death of a human being on the high seas, or waters navigable from the sea, caused by negligence, in the absence of an act of congress or a statute of a state giving a right of action therefor? (2) If not, can a suitin rem be maintained in admiralty against an offending vessel for the recovery of such damages when an action at law has been given therefor by statute in the state where the wrong was done, or where the vessel belonged? (3) If it can, will [7 S.Ct. 142] the admiralty courts permit such a recovery in a suit begun nearly five years after the death, when the statute which gives the right of action provides that the suit shall be brought within one year?

It was held by this court, on full consideration, in Insurance Co. v.Brame, 95 U.S. 756, 'that by the common law no civil action lies for an injury which results in death.' See, also, Dennick v. Railroad Co., 103 U.S. 11, 21. Such, also, is the judgment of the English courts, where an action of the kind could not be maintained until Lord Campbell's act, (9 & 10 Vict. c. 93.) It was so recited in that act, and so said by Lord BLACKBURN in The Vera Cruz, 10 App. Cas. 59, decided by the house of lords in 1884. Many of the cases bearing on this question are cited in the opinion in Insurance Co. v. Brame. Others will be found referred to in an elaborate note to Carey v. Berkshire R. Co., 48 Amer. Dec. 633. The only American cases in the common-law courts against the rule, to which our attention has been called, are Cross v. Guthery, 2 Root, 90; Ford

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v. Monroe, 20 Wend. 210; James v. Christy, 18 Mo. 162; and Sullivan v. Union Pac. R. Co., 3 Dill. 334. Cross v. Guthery, a Connecticut case, was decided in 1794, and cannot be reconciled with Goodsell v. Hart-ford, etc., R. Co., 33 Conn. 55, where it is said: 'It is a singular fact that by the common law the greatest injury which one man can inflict on another, the taking of his life, is without a private remedy.' Ford v. Monroe, a New York case, was substantially overruled by the court of appeals of that state in Green v. Hudson River R. Co., 41 N.Y. 294; and Sullivan v. Union Pac. R. Co., decided in 1874 by the circuit court of the United States for the district of Nebraska, is directly in conflict with Insurance Co. v. Brame, decided here in 1878.

We know of no English case in which it has been authoritatively decided that the rule in admiralty differs at all in this particular from that at common law. Indeed, in The Vera Cruz, supra, it was decided that even since Lord Campbell's act a suit in rem could not be maintained for such a wrong. Opinions were delivered in that case by the Lord Chancellor, (SELBORNE,) Lord BLACKBURN, and Lord WATSON. In each of these opinions it was assumed that no such action would lie without the statute, and the only question discussed was whether the statute had changed the rule. In view, then, of the fact that in England, the source of our system of law, and from a very early period one of the principal maritime nations of the world, no suit in admiralty can be maintained for the redress of such a wrong, we proceed to inquire whether, under the general maritime law as administered in the courts of the United States, a contrary rule has been or ought to be established.

In Plummer v. Webb, 1 Ware, 75, decided in 1825, Judge WARE held, in the district court of the United States for the district of Maine, in an admiralty suit in personam, that 'the ancient doctrine of the common law, founded on the principles of the feudal system, that a private wrong is merged in a felony, is not applicable to the civil polity of this country, and has not been adopted in this state,' (Maine;) and that 'a libel may

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be maintained by a father, in the admiralty, for consequential damages resulting from an assault and battery of his minor child,' 'after the death of the child, though the death was occasioned by the severity of the battery;' but the suit was dismissed because upon the evidence it did not appear that the father had in fact been damaged. The case was afterwards before Mr. Justice STORY or appeal, and is reported in 4 Mason, 380, but the question now involved was not considered, as the court found that the cause of action set forth in the libel and proved was not maritime in its nature.

We find no other reported case in which this subject was at all discussed until Cutting v. Seabury, 1 Spr. 522, decided by Judge SPRAGUE in the Massachusetts district in 1860. In that case, which was in personam, the judge said that 'the weight of authority in the common-law courts seems to be against the action, but natural equity and the general principles of law are in [7 S.Ct. 143] favor of it,' and that he could not consider it 'as settled that no action can be maintained for the death of a human being.' The libel was dismissed, however, because on the facts it appeared that no cause of action existed even if, in a proper case, a recovery could be had. The same eminent judge had, however, held as early as 1849, in Crapo v. Allen, 1 Spr. 185, that rights of action in admiralty for mere personal torts did not survive the death of the person injured.

Next followed the case of The Sea Gull, Chase, Dec. 145, decided by Chief Justice CHASE in the Maryland district in 1867. That was a suit in rem by a husband to recover damages for the death of his wife caused by the negligence of the steamer in a collision in the Chesapeake bay, and a recovery was had; the chief justice...

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