150 U.S. 674 (1893), 66, Belden v. Chase

Docket Nº:No. 66
Citation:150 U.S. 674, 14 S.Ct. 264, 37 L.Ed. 1218
Party Name:Belden v. Chase
Case Date:December 18, 1893
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 674

150 U.S. 674 (1893)

14 S.Ct. 264, 37 L.Ed. 1218




No. 66

United States Supreme Court

December 18, 1893

Argued November 3, 1893




This Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment of the highest court of a state in an action at common law to recover damages caused by the collision of two steamers navigating inland waters over which the United States have admiralty jurisdiction, when that judgment denies rights claimed by the plaintiff in error under rules established by statutes of the United States for preventing collisions, or rights regarding the application of such rules.

The appellate jurisdiction of this Court over questions national and international in their nature, arising in an action for a maritime tort committed upon navigable waters and within admiralty jurisdiction, cannot be restrained by the mere fact that the party plaintiff has elected to pursue his common law remedy in a state court.

In an action at common law for a maritime tort, the admiralty rule of an equal division of damages in the case of a collision between two vessels, when both are guilty of faults contributing to it, does not prevail, but the general rule there is that if both vessels are culpable in respect of faults operating directly and immediately to produce the collision, neither can recover damages for injuries so caused.

A steam pleasure yacht is an "oceangoing steamer," and is not a "coasting vessel."

A steam pleasure yacht on the inland waters of the United States is bound, when under way, to carry at the foremast head a bright white light, on the starboard side a green light, and on the port side a red light, as prescribed by rule 3 in Rev.Stat. § 4233, and is not required to carry "in addition thereto a central range of two white lights," as prescribed by rule 7 of that section for "coasting steam vessels . . . navigating the bays, lakes, rivers or other inland waters of the United States," that rule not being applicable to a steam pleasure yacht.

Regulations established by a board of supervising inspectors under Rev.Stat. § 4412 "to be observed by all steam vessels in passing each other" have the force of statutory enactment, are obligatory from the time when the necessity for precaution begins, and continue so while the means and opportunity to avoid the danger remains.

Where a vessel meeting or passing another vessel departs from the rules laid down by the supervising inspectors and a collision results, the burden of proof is on it to show that the departure was made necessary by immediate, impending, and alarming danger.

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Where a vessel has committed a positive breach of statute, she must not only show that her fault did not probably contribute to a disaster which followed, but that it could not have done so.

Two steamers on the Hudson River at night were approaching each other head and head. One gave a short blast from its whistle to indicate an intention to pass on the port side. The other answered by a similar blast, and then gave two whistles and changed its course so as to cross the bow of the first vessel. This resulted in a collision whereby the second vessel was sunk. An action at law was brought in a state court by the owners of the sunken vessel against the owners of the first vessel. On the trial, the court was asked to instruct the jury that the pilot who first blew the sharp whistle had the right to determine the coarse which each was to adopt; that the answer by a single whistle was an acceptance of his determination; that it then became the duty of the second vessel to pass the other according to that determination, and that the second vessel was guilty of negligence in giving the two whistles and in changing its course. The court refused these instructions and instructed the jury in substance that they were to determine whether those in management of the vessels were guilty of negligence or not, and whether they did or omitted to do that which persons of ordinary care and prudence ought to have done.


(1) That in refusing to give the instructions asked for and in charging in this general way, the obligatory force of the rules of navigation was substantially ignored.

(2) That the instruction did not put to the jury the question whether the second vessel was justified in departing from the rules, which was error.

(3) That the jury should have been told that two vessels approaching head to head and exchanging the signal of a single whistle were bound to pursue the course prescribed by the rules.

(4) And that they should have been farther instructed that if the first vessel assented to the signal of the two whistles, and there was an error in the course, it was at the risk of the second vessel, or at the most, both were in fault, and there could be no recovery.

This was an action at law brought by William Donahue, owner of the steamboat Charlotte Vanderbilt, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, against William Belden, owner of the yacht Yosemite, for so negligently navigating the yacht as to run down and sink the steamboat in the Hudson River a little north of Esopus Meadow lighthouse, and some ninety miles north of New York City at or about half past nine on the evening of July 14, 1882. Donahue died leaving a will, which was admitted to probate, and letters

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testamentary duly issued thereon to Emory A. Chase and William J. Hughes, who qualified as executors, and the action was thereupon revived and continued in their names. There have been three trials. Upon the first, a verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and judgment entered thereon which, on appeal to the general term of the supreme court, was reversed, and a new trial granted. Chase v. Belden, 34 Hun. 571. The case having been again tried, the trial court, proceeding in accordance with the rulings of the general term, nonsuited the plaintiffs. This judgment was affirmed by the general term, and upon appeal to the Court of Appeals, the judgment was reversed, and the cause remanded. Chase v. Belden, 104 N.Y. 86. The case was then tried a third time and a verdict rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and judgment entered thereon for $27,668.28 damages (the value of the Vanderbilt, with interest) and costs, which was affirmed at the general term. Chase v. Belden, 1 N.Y.Supp. 48. An appeal was thereupon taken to the Court of Appeals, and the judgment affirmed, the record being: "Judgment affirmed, with costs. No opinion. All concur, except Gray, J., who reads for reversal, and judgment affirmed." 117 N.Y. 637. The record here also shows this memorandum: "No prevailing opinion written. See mandate at close of this opinion." The dissenting opinion by Gray, J., is given in the record, and is reported in 22 N.Y. 688. To review the judgment of the Court of Appeals, this writ of error was brought.

The following map shows the part of the river where the collision occurred:

The Yosemite was going up, and the Vanderbilt down, stream. While the latter was passing between the upper ice house at Big Rock Point, and the lower ice house at Knickerbocker wharf, she was headed for a point between Esopus Light and the shore, and the Yosemite at the same time, was headed for a point west of Rhinebeck Bluff. When opposite the lower ice house, the Vanderbilt changed her course to the eastward, and headed for Dinsmore's house. About the same time, the Yosemite gave the signal of one whistle to the Vanderbilt, and she answered with one whistle.

Page 678

After the signals had been thus exchanged, the Vanderbilt blew two whistles, and followed up this signal by such a change in her course as brought her head rapidly to the eastward, until she was in a position almost directly across the stream, and was struck by the Yosemite at her forward gangway, on a line nearly at right angles to her course, with such force as to cut off her bow and sink her immediately.

Plaintiff alleged that the Yosemite was negligent in not having range lights; in that her red and green lights were dim; in not going to the left or the westward when the Vanderbilt gave two whistles, announcing her own intention of going to the left or to the eastward. The Yosemite claimed negligence on the part of the Vanderbilt in that when the latter was below the upper ice house at Big Rock Point, and both vessels were showing their red lights to each other, the Vanderbilt changed her course to the eastward, and headed for Dinsmore's house, thus throwing herself across the path of the Yosemite; in that, when the two vessels exchanged signals of a single whistle, the Vanderbilt did not comply with the signal thus given, and go to the right, but continued her course to the left; in that the Vanderbilt, having the Yosemite on her starboard side, failed to keep out of the latter's way; in that, if the Vanderbilt was in doubt, she did not comply with the applicable rule by giving alarm whistles and slacking up her speed; in that the Vanderbilt, after complying with the signal whistle, changed her mind, blew two whistles, and took a sudden sheer to the left or eastward. It was admitted that the Yosemite did not have range lights, and in this particular the Court of Appeals held that she failed to comply with the law. It was insisted on behalf of the Yosemite that her side lights were not dim, and that she could not go to the left when the two whistles of the Vanderbilt were heard because it was impossible for her to change her course at that moment in time to avoid the collision, and that the Vanderbilt had no right to blow the two whistles and go to the left after the interchange of signal whistles, which determined that each should go to the right. There was evidence on behalf of the Vanderbilt tending to show that after she gave two whistles,

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the Yosemite replied with two whistles; but on behalf of the Yose...

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