272 U.S. 675 (1927), 57, Eastern Transportation Company v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 57
Citation:272 U.S. 675, 47 S.Ct. 289, 71 L.Ed. 472
Party Name:Eastern Transportation Company v. United States
Case Date:January 03, 1927
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 675

272 U.S. 675 (1927)

47 S.Ct. 289, 71 L.Ed. 472

Eastern Transportation Company

v.

United States

No. 57

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 3, 1927

Argued December 7,1926

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA

Syllabus

1. Abandonment within the thirty-day period set by the Act of March 3, 1899, will not be presumed of a wreck left in a navigable

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channel, for the purpose of relieving the owner from the consequence of failure to remove or mark it as that Act requires. P. 686.

2. The leaving of an unmarked wreck in a navigable channel, in a manner declared by the Act of March 3, 1899, to be unlawful, with resulting damage to another's vessel, is a maritime tort, which, when committed by the United States may be civilly remediable under the Suits in Admiralty Act, although also a crime under the Act of 1899. P. 687.

3. Under the Suits in Admiralty Act, March 9, 1920, which, in lieu of earlier permission to proceed in rem against government merchant vessels and cargo, permits a libel in personam against the United States, with leave to the libelant to proceed in accordance with the principles of libels in rem whenever such a libel might have been maintained if the merchant vessel or cargo had been privately owned and possessed, and which provides also that election so to proceed "shall not preclude the libelant in any proper case from seeking relief in personam in the same suit," and that the United States shall be entitled to the benefit of all exemptions and limitations of liability accorded by law to the owners, charterers, operators, or agents of vessels, a libel in personam may be maintained against the United States to recover for the loss of a vessel and cargo resulting from the failure of the United States to remove or mark the wreck of a vessel, which, while owned and used by it as a merchant vessel, was sunk in a navigable channel. P. 692.

Reversed.

Appeal from a decree of the District Court which dismissed, for lack of jurisdiction, an admiralty suit in personam brought by the appellant against the United States to recover for a ship and cargo lost by collision with the sunken and unmarked wreck of what had been a vessel owned and used by the United States solely as a merchant vessel. The Seaboard Transportation Company, originally a co-defendant, was dismissed by consent of the other parties.

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TAFT, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Eastern Transportation Company filed a libel in admiralty in personam against the United States in the

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District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia under the Suits in Admiralty Act of 1920, and against the seaboard Transportation Company, as joint defendants. It averred that the libelant, a corporation of the State of Maryland, was the owner of the barge Winstead and the bailee of the cargo of the barge; that the Seaboard Transportation Company owned the tug Covington and the barge Pottsville; that, on August 15, 1920, the steamship Snug Harbor, owned and used by the United States solely as a merchant vessel, while on a voyage from Baltimore, Maryland, to Portland, Maine, came into collision with a barge Pottsville in tow of the tug Covington, was sunk, and became a total loss; that the wreck of the Snug Harbor lodged about 4 1/4 miles from Montauk Point, in a frequented channel way within the harbors and inland waters of the United States; that it was not marked with a buoy or beacon by day or a lighted lantern by night, and was not removed by the United States or the Seaboard Transportation Company, and that no notice had been given or published advising mariners navigating the neighboring waters of the presence of the wreck; that the barge Winstead, loaded with a full cargo of coal, on the 14th day of September, 1920, came into contact with the wreck, and, as a result, was sunk, and it and its cargo became a total loss, to the damage of the libelant in the sum of $105,000; that the collision between the Snug Harbor and the Pottsville was due to the negligence of both; that the collision of the Winstead with the wreck was without negligence of those engaged in her navigation, but was due to the unlawful presence of the wreck, for which the respondents were jointly and severally responsible.

The United States district attorney appeared specially for the government for the purpose of suggesting to the court that it was without jurisdiction so far as the United States was concerned; that the cause of action stated

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related to a failure on the part of the officers and agents of the United States to perform a purely governmental function, or to the alleged negligence of such officers and agents in the performance of such a function, and created no liability on the part of the United States for which it was suable; that the cause of action in no way concerned a vessel employed as a merchant vessel; that the Suits in Admiralty Act was to prevent the arrest and detention of vessels owned or possessed by the United States then employed as merchant vessels, and it was only to prevent such arrest and detention and consequent interference with the operation of such vessels that the United States consented by the Act to be sued in respect to such vessels, and that the United States had never consented by the Act or otherwise to be sued in respect to a wreck or any object incapable of being employed as a merchant vessel; that the suit in personam provided for by the Act was intended by Congress to be only a substitute for a suit in rem against such vessel itself, and by the terms of the Act could be brought and maintained only in cases where, if such vessel were privately owned, a suit in rem could be maintained against her at the time of the commencement of such action, and not then unless such vessel was employed as a merchant vessel at that time; that § 15 of the Act of March 3, 1899, making it the duty of the owner of any vessel or craft wrecked and sunk in a navigable channel immediately to mark it with a buoy or beacon by day and a lighted lantern at night, had no application to the United States of America, imposed no duty upon it, and created no liability for which it was suable in the district court below or elsewhere.

This issue on jurisdiction was presented by a motion to dismiss, which was denied by the district judge on the ground that the question should be determined after the facts were elicited in the trial of the case. 283 F. 1015. Subsequently, the judge reheard the suggestion of want of

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jurisdiction, and reached the conclusion on the facts alleged that the court was without jurisdiction, and dismissed the libel.

The record shows that, by consent of the other parties, the Seaboard Transportation Company has been dismissed for reasons appearing to the court and to counsel. It further appears that all questions of mere venue are waived.

This appeal, upon a certificate of the district judge that the dismissal had been solely for lack of jurisdiction, was brought directly to this Court on March 20, 1925, under § 238 of the Judicial Code as it was before it was amended by the Act of February 13, 1925, in accordance with § 14 of that Act, 43 Stat. 936, c. 229.

The case before us turns on the proper construction of the Suits in Admiralty Act. It was passed March 9, 1920, [47 S.Ct. 291] c. 95, 41 Stat. at Large 525. Its first section provides that no vessel owned by the United States or by any corporation in which the United States or its representatives owns the entire outstanding capital stock shall thereafter "in view of the provision herein made for libel in personam be subject to arrest or seizure by judicial process in the United States or its possessions."

By § 2, in cases where, if such vessel were privately owned or operated, or if such cargo were privately owned and possessed, a proceeding in admiralty could be maintained at the time of the commencement of the Action, a libel in personam may be brought against the United States if the vessel is employed as a merchant vessel. The suit is to be in a district court of the United States for the district in which the parties...

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