Smith v. Burnett

Decision Date13 March 1899
Docket NumberNo. 112,112
Citation19 S.Ct. 442,173 U.S. 430,43 L.Ed. 756
PartiesSMITH et al. v. BURNETT et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

This is an appeal from the court of appeals for the District of Columbia affirming a decree of the supreme court of the District, sitting in admiralty, whereby appellees, original libelants in the cause, were awarded damages, and a cross libel filed by appellants was dismissed. 10 App. D. C. 469. As stated by the court of appeals, the libel was filed by appellees against appellants for an alleged injury to their vessel, the schooner Ellen Tobin, while moored in berth at appellants' wharf, on the bank of the Potomac, at Georgetown, for the purpose of being loaded by and for appellants; and the injury complained of was averred to have been occasioned by appellants negligently allowing a dangerous rock to remain in the bed of the river, within the limits of the berth at the wharf which the vessel was invited to take, the obstruction being unknown to the master of the vessel, and he having been, moreover, assured by appellants, through their agent, that the depth of water in berth in front of the wharf was sufficient, and that the berth was safe for the loading of the vessel.

The facts, in general, found by that court, were that appellants were lessees of wharf and water rights extending to the channel of the river, and the berth assigned to and taken by the schooner for the purpose of loading was in front of their wharf, and within the leased premises; that appellants were engaged in the business of crushing and shipping stone from the wharf to different points, and that the schooner had been brought up the river, by prearrangement with a ship broker in Georgetown, in order to be loaded by appellants at their wharf with crushed stone, to be taken to Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, to be used in government work at that place; that the vessel was staunch and in good repair, was a three-masted schooner of 600 tons capacity, was registered at the New York custom house as a coasting vessel of the United States, and was owned by appellees at the time of the injury complained of. It was further found 'that the vessel was sunk on [Sunday] the 6th of August, 1893, as she was moored in the berth at the wharf, while receiving her cargo of crushed stone from the wharf by means of a chute extended from the wharf to the hatchway of the vessel. The vessel was about two-thirds loaded, having received about 400 tons of her cargo, before signs were discovered of her distressed condition. She was then taking water so rapidly that the pumps could not relieve her, nor could the extra assistance employed by the master avail to save her from breaking and sinking in the berth. The work of loading was stopped on Saturday evening, with the intention of re uming the work of loading on the following Monday morning; and the captain of the vessel, at the time of stopping work on Saturday, made soundings around the vessel, and supposed that she was then lying all right. But on Sunday morning it was discovered that there was so much water in her that she could not be relieved by her pumps; and by 5 o'clock on the afternoon of that day she had filled with water, and broke in the middle, and sank in her berth, where she remained, with her cargo under water, until the 1st of November, 1893, when the stone was pumped out of her, and she was then condemned as worthless, and was afterwards sold at auction for $25 to one of the owners.' Other findings of fact appeared in the opinion.

Appellants denied all negligence, and insisted that they were in no way responsible for the disaster, and in a cross libel asserted a claim for damages caused by the fault of appellees in allowing the vessel to sink in the river in front of their wharf, and to remain there for an undue time. The evidence was voluminous and conflicting.

R. D. Benedict, Nathaniel Wilson, Jas. S. Edwards, and Job Barnard, for appellants.

Wm. G. Choate, for appellees.

Mr. Chief Justice FULLER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

Undoubtedly there was jurisdiction in admiralty in the courts below, and the applicable principles of law are familiar.

Although a wharfinger does not guaranty the safety of vessels coming to his wharves, he is bound to exercise reasonable diligence in ascertaining the condition of the berths thereat, and, if there is any dangerous obstruction, to remove it, or to give due notice of its existence to vessels about to use the berths. At the same time, the master is bound to use ordinary care, and cannot carelessly run into danger. Railway Co. v. Steamboat Co., 23 How. 209; Sawyer v. Oakman, 7 Blatchf. 290, Fed. Cas. No. 12,402; Thompson v. Railway Co., 2 Best & S. 106; Id. 119; Trustees v. Gibbs, L. R. 1 H. L. 93; Carleton v. Steel Co., 99 Mass. 216; Nickerson v. Terrell, 127 Mass. 236; Barber v. Abendroth, 102 N. Y. 406, 7 N. E. 417.

Carleton v. Steel Co., 99 Mass. 216, is so much in point that we quote from it, as did the court of appeals. The case was in tort for injury to plaintiffs' schooner by being sunk and bilged in the dock adjoining defendants' wharf, which fronted on navigable waters, where the tide ebbed and flowed. Defendants had dredged out the adjoining space to accommodate vessels which were accustomed to come with iron and coal for defendants' foundries, situated on the wharf. There was in the space dredged a large rock, sunk in the water, and thereby concealed from sight, dangerous to vessels, and so situated that a vessel of the draft to which the water at the wharf was adapted, being placed at high water at that part of the wharf, would lie over the rock, and at the ebb of the tide would rest upon it. Defendants had notice of the existence and position of the rock, and of its danger to vessels, but neglected to buoy or mark it, or to give any notice of it to plaintiffs or any one in their employment, though their vessel came to the wharf by defendants' procurement, bringing a cargo of iron for them under a verbal charter. Mr. Justice Gray, among other things, observed:

'It does not, indeed, appear that the defendants owned the soil of the dock in which the rock was imbedded; but they had excavated the dock for the purpose of accommodating vessels bringing cargoes to their wharf, and such vessels were accustomed to occupy it, and could not discharge at that point of the wharf without doing so. * * * Even if the wharf was not public, but private, and the defendants had no title in the dock, and the concealed and dangerous obstacle was not created by them or by any human agency, they were still responsible for an injury occasioned by it to a vessel which they had induced for their own benefit to come to the wharf, and which, without negligence on the part of its owners or their agents or servants, was put in a place apparently adapted to its reception, but known by the defendants to be unsafe. This case cannot be distinguished in principle from that of the owner of land adjoining a highway, who, knowing that there was a large rock or a deep pit between the traveled part of the highway and his own gate, should tell a carrier, bringing goods to his house at night, to drive in, without warning him of the defect, and who would be equally liable for an injury sustained in acting upon his invitation, whether he did or did not own the soil under the highway.'

And as to the degree of care required of the master or vessel owner the same court, in...

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