The Great Western
118 U.S. 520 (1886)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

The Great Western, 118 U.S. 520 (1886)

The Great Western

Argued October 19-20, 1885

Decided May 10, 1886

118 U.S. 520




The decision in The City of Norwich, ante118 U. S. 468, in relation to the time when the value of the owner's interest in the ship is to be taken for fixing the amount of his liability, applied to a case where the offending ship did not sink in consequence of the collision, but was afterwards sunk and wrecked in the same voyage by the negligent navigation of those in charge of her, this sinking being held to be the termination of the voyage.

Page 118 U. S. 521

The decision in the same case as to insurance repeated.

Limited liability may be claimed 1st, merely by way of defense to an action, or 2d, by surrendering the ship or paying her value into court. The latter method is only necessary when the shipowner desires to bring all the credit ors claiming damage into concourse for distribution.

Page 118 U. S. 523

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case grew out of a collision which occurred on the 25th of March, 1876, on the high seas, 150 miles from Sandy Hook, between the Norwegian bark Daphne, belonging to the appellants and bound to Marseilles, and the British steamship Great Western, belonging to the respondent and

Page 118 U. S. 524

others, and bound to New York. The Daphne was injured about $7,000 worth, and the court below found that the Great Western was in fault, and was worth $150,000, both before and immediately after the collision; but that after the collision, and on the same day, the steamer, while still on her voyage to New York, was stranded and wrecked on the south coast of Long Island by the careless navigation and fault of those in charge of her, and from no cause connected with the collision. No freight was received by her owners. On the 29th of March, they abandoned her to the underwriters and received from them insurance to the amount of 34,000 as for a total loss. After this, the wreck and materials saved were sold for account of the underwriters and by direction of the owners, and realized $1,796.14. On the 27th of March, 1876, the libel was filed in this case on account of the owners of the Daphne, and Whitwill, the respondent, appeared and answered, denying that the Great Western was in fault and claiming that if she should be found in fault, the owner's liability was limited to the amount or value of his interest in the vessel and her freight, and that this interest was of no value whatever, and to this he added, by leave of the court during the trial, the following words: "And he hereby surrenders the same to the libellants." He also, during the trial, tendered an assignment of his interest to the libellants, and offered to give another assignment to a trustee for the benefit of the libellants under § 4285 of the Revised Statutes of the United States. The court below held that the owners of the Great Western were only liable for the proceeds of the wreck, amounting to $1,796.14, and gave a decree for that amount and interest, and for the costs of the libellants in the district court.

The errors assigned for the reversal of this decree are substantially as follows, to-wit:

First. That the limitation of the respondent's liability to the value of the ship and freight in the condition in which they were after the stranding and wreck is contrary to the rule contained in § 4283 of the Revised Statutes.

Secondly. Because the insurance received by the owners was not included in the value of their interest in the

Page 118 U. S. 525

ship liable to be surrendered in order to obtain a limitation of liability, and was not taken into account in fixing the measure of such liability.

Thirdly. Because the court allowed the respondent to amend his answer by the words "and he hereby surrenders the same to the libellants," and permitted him to give in evidence his written surrender of his interest in the steamer to the libellants, and his offer to make a like surrender to a trustee for the benefit of the defendants.

Fourthly. Because without proof that the laws of Sweden and Great Britain are the same on the subject, the only law applicable to the case was the law of the forum, of which the general admiralty law forms no part.

The points raised in the first and second assignments have been already discussed and decided in the case of The City of Norwich, ante,118 U. S. 468. There is nothing peculiar in the present case, unless it be that the Great Western was not sunk or wrecked by means of the collision, but afterwards, by the carelessness of her master or crew. This can make no difference. We showed in the opinion referred to that the termination of the voyage is the point of time at which the value of the offending vessel is to be taken. The voyage in the present case was not terminated until the vessel was sunk and stranded on the Long Island coast. The carelessness of the master and crew cannot vary the result. It is against their faults and negligence that the law was intended to protect the ship owner, provided the loss and damage sustained were caused without his privity or knowledge.

The third assignment of error cannot be maintained, because the evidence referred to therein, which the court allowed to be given on the trial, could not affect the result; nor was the amendment of the answer material. The answer, as originally framed, set up the defense that the liability of the respondent was limited to the amount or value of his interest in the Great Western and her freight upon the voyage, and averred that that interest was of no value. The issue being thus raised, the respondent was entitled to have the decree against him in that cause limited to the amount which should be shown, by the proofs on the trial, to be the value of said steamer and

Page 118 U. S. 526

freight at the termination of the voyage. He did not need to make any surrender or attempt at a surrender. A surrender of the vessel, or payment of her proceeds or value into court, would have been necessary in order to bring other creditors into concourse with the libellants, but for the mere defense of that cause, it was not necessary. This disposes of the supposed difficulty in making an abandonment to the libellants after a surrender of abandonment to the insurers -- a difficulty which we have already shown to be groundless in the opinion referred to.

The fourth assignment of error is not well taken, because the case was altogether decided according to the maritime law of this country, which is the law of the forum.

The decree of the circuit court is



MR. JUSTICE MILLER, MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, MR. JUSTICE GRAY, and myself are unable to concur in the opinion and judgment of the Court in the three cases just disposed of. The importance of the question decided justifies a statement of the grounds of this dissent.

The principal question, stated generally, involved in all the cases is whether, under §§ 4282 to 4285, inclusive, of the Revised Statutes, being reenactments of §§ 1, 3, and 4 of the Act of March 3, 1851, limiting the liability of ship owners so that for the losses specified it shall not in any case exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in such vessel and her freight then pending, that value shall be estimated as including or excluding any sum received or receivable by the ship owner on account of insurance upon his interest in the vessel or freight.

Although that is the main question in all the cases now decided, the circumstances which give rise to it in them respectively

Page 118 U. S. 527

differ in some important particulars, a consideration of which will throw light upon the principle according to which it is to be determined.

The case of The Scotland (Dyer v. National Steam Nav. Co.) was a libel in personam in a cause of collision, for the loss of the ship Kate Dyer, run down on the high seas by the fault of the steamship Scotland, of which the respondents were owners. A former appeal in the same case, decided by this Court, is found reported under the name of The Scotland,105 U. S. 24. The Kate Dyer was sunk immediately, and the steamship Scotland sunk soon after, from the effects of the collision, and was a total loss, a portion of the wreck being saved. It was held on the former hearing that the respondents were entitled to the benefits of the statute limiting their liability. The decree for the several libellants amounts in the aggregate to $255,047.70. It is also found that the Scotland, at the time of the collision was worth

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