88 U.S. 389 (1875), Atlee v. Union Packet Co.

Citation:88 U.S. 389, 22 L.Ed. 619
Case Date:March 01, 1875
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 389

88 U.S. 389 (1875)

22 L.Ed. 619




United States Supreme Court.

March 01, 1875


APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Iowa.

The Union Packet Company filed a libel in admiralty, in the District Court of Iowa, against Atlee, founded on the sinking of a barge, for which he, Atlee, was charged to be liable, on the ground that it was caused by a collision with a stone pier built by him in the navigable part of the Mississippi River.

The pier was built in the winter of 1870-71; the collision occurred in April, 1871.

The District Court was of opinion that Atlee had not exceeded his rights as a riparian owner in building the pier where it was, in aid of his business as a lumberman and owner of a saw-mill on the bank of the river, the pier being part of a boom to retain his logs until needed for sawing. But that court was further of opinion that by failing to have a light on this pier during a dark night, Atlee was guilty of a fault which rendered him in part responsible for the collision. As, however, the libellants were also found to be in fault, for want of care and knowledge of this obstruction on the part of the pilot, the District Court divided the damages, and rendered a decree against Atlee for half of them.

The Circuit Court was of opinion that Atlee had no right to erect the pier where it was, and, seeing no fault on the part of the pilot, decreed the whole damage against Atlee. He accordingly appealed to this court.

Page 391

The appeal was submitted to this court on printed argument, November 26th, 1873, and the decree of the Circuit Court was affirmed by an equal division of the court, which was at that time composed of eight members. On application for rehearing, this decree of affirmance was set aside and a reargument ordered on the question whether the damages should be apportioned, both parties being in fault.

The reargument was accordingly made by briefs at this term, the court being now full, and the whole matter reconsidered.


Mr. G. W. McCrary, for the appellant; Mr. H. S. Howell, contra.

Mr. Justice MILLER now delivered the judgment of the court, stating, at the same time, the more particular and necessary facts of the case.

No question is made of the jurisdiction of the District Court sitting in admiralty.

The testimony is very voluminous, as is also the discussion of it by counsel, but we are of opinion that the decision of the case must rest mainly on undisputed facts, or those about which there is but little conflict of testimony.

We shall assume the truth of the facts which we state as the foundation of our judgment, without a reference to the witnesses by which they are proved.

The pier against which libellant's barge struck is about thirty feet square, constructed of stone and timber, located from one hundred and forty to fifty feet from the bank of the river, in water of the average depth of twelve feet at that place, being ten feet even at a low stage of the water.

At low water this pillar is fifteen feet above the surface, and a foot or two in very high water. A part of the distance between the shore and the pier consists in low water of a sand-bar. Seven hundred feet above the pier this sand-bar tends to a point in the river made by the deposits from a small stream called French Creek, and this point, in relation to the general course of the river, projects something

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further towards the centre of the channel than Atlee's pier does.

Three-quarters of a mile above the pier is the levee, wharf, or landing-place of the city of Fort Madison.

The appellant was the owner of extensive saw-mills, and of the lands on which they were located, bounded by the river at the point of the location of the pier for some distance above and below. He had built this pier, and another below it, as parts of a boom for receiving and retaining the logs necessary for use in his mill. Some kind of a boom was necessary to enable him to keep these logs safely and economically. No question is made but that if he had a right to build a pier at that place it was built with due skill and care, and that he was blameless in every...

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