195 U.S. 361 (1904), 34, The Blackheath

Docket Nº:No. 34
Citation:195 U.S. 361, 25 S.Ct. 46, 49 L.Ed. 236
Party Name:The Blackheath
Case Date:November 28, 1904
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 361

195 U.S. 361 (1904)

25 S.Ct. 46, 49 L.Ed. 236

The Blackheath

No. 34

United States Supreme Court

November 28, 1904

Argued October 31, 1904




Admiralty has jurisdiction of a libel in rem against a vessel for the damages caused by its negligently running into a beacon in a channel,

although the beacon is attached to the bottom.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

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HOLMES, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from the district court on the question of jurisdiction, which is certified. The case is a libel in rem against a British vessel for the destruction of a beacon -- Number 7, Mobile ship-channel lights -- caused by the alleged negligent running into the beacon by the vessel. The beacon [25 S.Ct. 47] stood fifteen or twenty feet from the channel of Mobile River or Bay, in water twelve or fifteen feet deep, and was built on piles driven firmly into the bottom. There is no question that it was attached to the realty, and that it was a part of it by the ordinary criteria of the common law. On this ground, the district court declined jurisdiction, and dismissed the libel. The Blackheath, 122 F. 112.

In The Plymouth, 3 Wall. 20, where a libel was brought by the owners of a wharf burned by a fire negligently started on a vessel, the jurisdiction was denied by this Court. See also Ex Parte Phenix Ins. Co., 118 U.S. 610. In two later cases, there are dicta denying the jurisdiction equally when a building on shore is damaged by a vessel running into it. Johnson v. Chicago & Pacific Elevator Co., 119 U.S. 388; Homer Ramsdell Transportation Co. v. La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 182 U.S. 406, 411. And there are a number of decisions of district and other courts since The Plymouth which more or less accord with the conclusion of the court below. 62 C.C.A. 287, 290. It would be simple, if simplicity were the only thing to be considered, to confine the admiralty jurisdiction, in respect of damage to property, to damage done to property afloat. That distinction sounds like a logical consequence of the rule determining the admiralty cognizance of torts by place.

On the other hand, it would be a strong thing to say that Congress has no constitutional power to give the admiralty

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here as broad a jurisdiction as it has in England or France. Or, if that is in some degree precluded, it ought at least to be possible for Congress to authorize the admiralty to give redress for damage by a ship, in a case like this, to instruments and aids of navigation prepared and owned by the government. But Congress cannot enlarge the constitutional grant of power, and therefore if it could permit a libel to be maintained, one can be maintained now. We are called on by the appellees to say that the remedy for any case of damage to a fixture is outside the constitutional grant.

The precise scope of admiralty jurisdiction is not a matter of obvious principle or of very accurate history. As to principle, it is clear that, if the beacon had been in fault, and had hurt the ship, a libel could have been maintained against a private owner, although not in rem. Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore R. Co. v. Philadelphia & Havre de Grace Steam Towboat Co., 23 How. 209; Atlee v. Northwestern Union Packet Co., 21 Wall. 389; Panama Railroad v. Napier Shipping Co., 166 U.S. 280. Compare The Rock Island Bridge, 6 Wall. 213. But, as has been suggested, there seems to be no reason why the fact that the injured property was afloat should have more weight in determining the jurisdiction than the fact that the cause of the injury was. The Arkansas, 17 F. 383, 387; The F. & P.M. No. 2, 33 F. 511, 515; Hughes, Admiralty 183. And again, it seems more arbitrary than rational to treat attachment to the soil as a peremptory bar, outweighing the considerations that the injured thing was an instrument of navigation, and no part of the shore, but surrounded on every side by water, a mere point projecting from the sea.

As to history, while, as it is well known, the admiralty jurisdiction of this country has not been limited by the local traditions of England, The Lottawanna, 21 Wall. 558, 574, the traditions of England favor it in a case like this. The admiral's authority was not excluded by attachment even to the main shore. From before the time of Rowghton's Articles, he could hold inquest over nuisances there to navigation,

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and order their abatement. Art. 7, 1 Black Book (Twiss) 224; Clerke, Praxis; 1 Select Pleas in Adm., 6 Seld.Soc.Publ., xlv., lxxx.; Articles of Feb. 18, 1633, Exton, Maritime Dicaeology, pp. 262, 263; 2 Hale, De Port.,...

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