207 U.S. 398 (1907), 71, The Hamilton

Docket Nº:No. 71
Citation:207 U.S. 398, 28 S.Ct. 133, 52 L.Ed. 264
Party Name:The Hamilton
Case Date:December 23, 1907
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 398

207 U.S. 398 (1907)

28 S.Ct. 133, 52 L.Ed. 264

The Hamilton

No. 71

United States Supreme Court

December 23, 1907

Argued October 24, 1907




Until Congress acts on the subject, a state may legislate in regard to the duties and liabilities of its citizens and corporations while on the high seas and not within the territory of any other sovereign.

Where a fund is being distributed in a proceeding to limit the liability of the owners of a vessel, all claims to which the admiralty does not deny existence must be recognized, whether admiralty liens or not.

The statute of Delaware giving damages for death caused by tort is a valid exercise of the legislative power of the state, and extends to the case of a citizen of that state wrongfully killed while on the high seas in a vessel

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belonging to a Delaware corporation by the negligence of another vessel also belonging to a Delaware corporation. A claim against the owner of one of the vessels in fault can be enforced in a proceeding in admiralty brought by such owner to limit its liability.

When both vessels in collision are in fault, the representative of a seaman on one of the vessels, killed without contributory negligence on his part, may, in a proceeding to limit liability, where an action is given by the state statute against the owner of the other vessel, recover full damages, and are not limited to damages recoverable under the maritime law against the seaman's own vessel for death or injury caused by negligence of the master thereof or his fellow servant thereon. Neither the seaman's contract with the owner of the vessel he is on, nor the negligence of his own vessel, nor any provision of the Harter Act affects the claim against the other vessel.

146 F. 724 affirmed.

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 a proceeding for the limitation of liability of the steamship Hamilton in respect of a collision on the high seas with the steamship Saginaw, in which the Saginaw was sunk and her chief mate and some of her crew and passengers were drowned. It is found, and not disputed, that both vessels were to blame. Both vessels belonged to corporations of the State of Delaware. A statute of that state, after enacting that actions for injuries to the person shall not abate by reason of the plaintiff's death, provides that,

whenever death shall be occasioned by unlawful violence or negligence, and no suit be brought by the party injured to recover damages during his or her life, the widow or widower of any such deceased person, or, if there be no widow or widower, the personal representatives, may maintain an action for and recover damages for the death and loss thus occasioned.

Act of January 26, 1886, chap. 31, p. 28, vol. 13, Part 1, as amended

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by Act of March 9, 1901, chap. 210, p. 500, vol. 22, Delaware Laws. On the strength of this statute, the representatives of a passenger and of three of the crew filed claims, and the claims were allowed by the district court (see 134 F. 95, 139 F. 906) and afterwards by the circuit court of appeals (146 F. 724). A certiorari was granted by this Court to settle the question, as stated by the petitioner, whether the Delaware statute applies to a claim for death on the high seas, arising purely from tort, in proceedings in admiralty. Incidentally, the right of representatives of the crew of the Saginaw to recover their claims in full against the Hamilton also has been discussed.

Apart from the subordination of the State of Delaware to the Constitution of the United States, there is no doubt that it would have had power to make its statute applicable to this case. When so applied, the statute governs the reciprocal liabilities of two corporations, existing only by virtue of the laws of Delaware, and permanently within its jurisdiction, for the consequences of conduct set in motion by them there, operating [28 S.Ct. 134] outside the territory of the state, it is true, but within no other territorial jurisdiction. If confined to corporations, the state would have power to enforce its law to the extent of their property in every case. But the same authority would exist as to citizens domiciled within the state, even when personally on the high seas, and not only could be enforced by the state in case of their return, which their domicil by its very meaning promised, but, in proper cases, would be recognized in other jurisdictions by the courts of other states. In short, the bare fact of the parties' being outside the territory, in a place belonging to no other sovereign, would not limit the authority of the state, as accepted by civilized theory. No one doubts the power of England or France to govern their own ships upon the high seas.

The first question, then, is narrowed to whether there is anything in the structure of the national government and under the Constitution of the United States that takes away

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or qualifies the authority that otherwise Delaware would possess -- a...

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