Belden v. Chase
150 U.S. 674 (1893)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Belden v. Chase, 150 U.S. 674 (1893)

Belden v. Chase

No. 66

Argued November 3, 1893

Decided December 18, 1893

150 U.S. 674

Syllabus

This Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment of the highest court of a state in an action at common law to recover damages caused by the collision of two steamers navigating inland waters over which the United States have admiralty jurisdiction, when that judgment denies rights claimed by the plaintiff in error under rules established by statutes of the United States for preventing collisions, or rights regarding the application of such rules.

The appellate jurisdiction of this Court over questions national and international in their nature, arising in an action for a maritime tort committed upon navigable waters and within admiralty jurisdiction, cannot be restrained by the mere fact that the party plaintiff has elected to pursue his common law remedy in a state court.

In an action at common law for a maritime tort, the admiralty rule of an equal division of damages in the case of a collision between two vessels, when both are guilty of faults contributing to it, does not prevail, but the general rule there is that if both vessels are culpable in respect of faults operating directly and immediately to produce the collision, neither can recover damages for injuries so caused.

A steam pleasure yacht is an "oceangoing steamer," and is not a "coasting vessel."

A steam pleasure yacht on the inland waters of the United States is bound, when under way, to carry at the foremast head a bright white light, on the starboard side a green light, and on the port side a red light, as prescribed by rule 3 in Rev.Stat. § 4233, and is not required to carry "in addition thereto a central range of two white lights," as prescribed by rule 7 of that section for "coasting steam vessels . . . navigating the bays, lakes, rivers or other inland waters of the United States," that rule not being applicable to a steam pleasure yacht.

Regulations established by a board of supervising inspectors under Rev.Stat. § 4412 "to be observed by all steam vessels in passing each other" have the force of statutory enactment, are obligatory from the time when the necessity for precaution begins, and continue so while the means and opportunity to avoid the danger remains.

Where a vessel meeting or passing another vessel departs from the rules laid down by the supervising inspectors and a collision results, the burden of proof is on it to show that the departure was made necessary by immediate, impending, and alarming danger.

Page 150 U. S. 675

Where a vessel has committed a positive breach of statute, she must not only show that her fault did not probably contribute to a disaster which followed, but that it could not have done so.

Two steamers on the Hudson River at night were approaching each other head and head. One gave a short blast from its whistle to indicate an intention to pass on the port side. The other answered by a similar blast, and then gave two whistles and changed its course so as to cross the bow of the first vessel. This resulted in a collision whereby the second vessel was sunk. An action at law was brought in a state court by the owners of the sunken vessel against the owners of the first vessel. On the trial, the court was asked to instruct the jury that the pilot who first blew the sharp whistle had the right to determine the coarse which each was to adopt; that the answer by a single whistle was an acceptance of his determination; that it then became the duty of the second vessel to pass the other according to that determination, and that the second vessel was guilty of negligence in giving the two whistles and in changing its course. The court refused these instructions and instructed the jury in substance that they were to determine whether those in management of the vessels were guilty of negligence or not, and whether they did or omitted to do that which persons of ordinary care and prudence ought to have done.

Held:

(1) That in refusing to give the instructions asked for and in charging in this general way, the obligatory force of the rules of navigation was substantially ignored.

(2) That the instruction did not put to the jury the question whether the second vessel was justified in departing from the rules, which was error.

(3) That the jury should have been told that two vessels approaching head to head and exchanging the signal of a single whistle were bound to pursue the course prescribed by the rules.

(4) And that they should have been farther instructed that if the first vessel assented to the signal of the two whistles, and there was an error in the course, it was at the risk of the second vessel, or at the most, both were in fault, and there could be no recovery.

This was an action at law brought by William Donahue, owner of the steamboat Charlotte Vanderbilt, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, against William Belden, owner of the yacht Yosemite, for so negligently navigating the yacht as to run down and sink the steamboat in the Hudson River a little north of Esopus Meadow lighthouse, and some ninety miles north of New York City at or about half past nine on the evening of July 14, 1882. Donahue died leaving a will, which was admitted to probate, and letters

Page 150 U. S. 676

testamentary duly issued thereon to Emory A. Chase and William J. Hughes, who qualified as executors, and the action was thereupon revived and continued in their names. There have been three trials. Upon the first, a verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and judgment entered thereon which, on appeal to the general term of the supreme court, was reversed, and a new trial granted. Chase v. Belden, 34 Hun. 571. The case having been again tried, the trial court, proceeding in accordance with the rulings of the general term, nonsuited the plaintiffs. This judgment was affirmed by the general term, and upon appeal to the Court of Appeals, the judgment was reversed, and the cause remanded. Chase v. Belden, 104 N.Y. 86. The case was then tried a third time and a verdict rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and judgment entered thereon for $27,668.28 damages (the value of the Vanderbilt, with interest) and costs, which was affirmed at the general term. Chase v. Belden, 1 N.Y.Supp. 48. An appeal was thereupon taken to the Court of Appeals, and the judgment affirmed, the record being: "Judgment affirmed, with costs. No opinion. All concur, except Gray, J., who reads for reversal, and judgment affirmed." 117 N.Y. 637. The record here also shows this memorandum: "No prevailing opinion written. See mandate at close of this opinion." The dissenting opinion by Gray, J., is given in the record, and is reported in 22 N.Y. 688. To review the judgment of the Court of Appeals, this writ of error was brought.

The following map shows the part of the river where the collision occurred:

image:a

The Yosemite was going up, and the Vanderbilt down, stream. While the latter was passing between the upper ice house at Big Rock Point, and the lower ice house at Knickerbocker wharf, she was headed for a point between Esopus Light and the shore, and the Yosemite at the same time, was headed for a point west of Rhinebeck Bluff. When opposite the lower ice house, the Vanderbilt changed her course to the eastward, and headed for Dinsmore's house. About the same time, the Yosemite gave the signal of one whistle to the Vanderbilt, and she answered with one whistle.

Page 150 U. S. 678

After the signals had been thus exchanged, the Vanderbilt blew two whistles, and followed up this signal by such a change in her course as brought her head rapidly to the eastward, until she was in a position almost directly across the stream, and was struck by the Yosemite at her forward gangway, on a line nearly at right angles to her course, with such force as to cut off her bow and sink her immediately.

Plaintiff alleged that the Yosemite was negligent in not having range lights; in that her red and green lights were dim; in not going to the left or the westward when the Vanderbilt gave two whistles, announcing her own intention of going to the left or to the eastward. The Yosemite claimed negligence on the part of the Vanderbilt in that when the latter was below the upper ice house at Big Rock Point, and both vessels were showing their red lights to each other, the Vanderbilt changed her course to the eastward, and headed for Dinsmore's house, thus throwing herself across the path of the Yosemite; in that, when the two vessels exchanged signals of a single whistle, the Vanderbilt did not comply with the signal thus given, and go to the right, but continued her course to the left; in that the Vanderbilt, having the Yosemite on her starboard side, failed to keep out of the latter's way; in that, if the Vanderbilt was in doubt, she did not comply with the applicable rule by giving alarm whistles and slacking up her speed; in that the Vanderbilt, after complying with the signal whistle, changed her mind, blew two whistles, and took a sudden sheer to the left or eastward. It was admitted that the Yosemite did not have range lights, and in this particular the Court of Appeals held that she failed to comply with the law. It was insisted on behalf of the Yosemite that her side lights were not dim, and that she could not go to the left when the two whistles of the Vanderbilt were heard because it was impossible for her to change her course at that moment in time to avoid the collision, and that the Vanderbilt had no right to blow the two whistles and go to the left after the interchange of signal whistles, which determined that each should go to the right. There was evidence on behalf of the Vanderbilt tending to show that after she gave two whistles,

Page 150 U. S. 679

the Yosemite replied with two whistles; but on behalf of the Yosemite, the evidence tended to show that she did not reply with two whistles, but began to give three whistles, and the collision occurred before she could do so.

The enrollment of the Vanderbilt was issued at the port of Albany, September 25, 1880, in conformity to Title Fifty of the Revised Statutes, entitled "Regulations of Vessels in Domestic Commerce," and stated, among other things, that she was built in 1857, was two hundred and seven feet long, and measured 585.74 tons. Her license was issued October 3, 1881, to be employed in the coasting trade for one year from the date thereof, and no longer. Her certificate of inspection was to the effect that she was inspected in the District of Albany July 20, 1881, and that she was permitted to navigate for one year the waters of the Hudson River between Albany and New York, touching at intermediate points, a distance of about one hundred miles and return, or any inland route. Among the particulars of inspection were enumerated that she had one watchman and had signal lights.

The Yosemite had a license under Title Forty-Eight of the Revised Statutes, entitled "Regulation of Commerce and Navigation," dated May 27, 1882, describing her as of the burden of four hundred and eighty-one and fifty one-hundredths tons, used and employed exclusively as a pleasure vessel, and designed as a model of naval architecture. She was licensed to proceed from port to port of the United States and by sea to foreign ports, without entering or clearing at the custom house, but not allowed to transport merchandise or carry passengers for pay. This license was to continue and be in force for one year from the date thereof, or until the return of the yacht from a foreign port, and no longer. Her enrollment was under Section 4319, Title Fifty, and bore date January 20, 1881, and certified that she had two decks and two masts, that her length was one hundred and eighty-two feet, her breadth twenty-three and eight-tenths feet, her depth eighteen and seven-tenths feet, and that she measured as above given. Her certificate of inspection described her tonnage and accommodations,

Page 150 U. S. 680

and stated:

"The said vessel is permitted to navigate for one year the waters of any ocean route between _____ and touching at intermediate ports, a distance of ___ miles, and return."

Among the particulars, it appeared that she had one watchman and signal lights.

The yacht was so constructed that she could be propelled by either the power of steam or sails, or by both, and at the time of the collision her sails were furled, and she was propelled wholly by the power of steam. She had left City Island, eighteen miles from New York, about ten o'clock that forenoon, laid at New York until about three or four in the afternoon, and then left for Catskill.

The following are extracts from the Revised Statutes and the rules of the supervising inspectors:

"Navigation"

"SEC. 4233. The following rules for preventing collisions on the water, shall be followed in the navigation of vessels of the navy and of the mercantile marine of the United States:"

"Steam and Sail Vessels"

"Rule One. Every steam vessel which is under sail and not under steam shall be considered a sail vessel, and every steam vessel which is under steam, whether under sail or not, shall be considered a steam vessel."

"Lights"

"Rule Two. The lights mentioned in the following rules, and no others, shall be carried in all weathers, between sunset and sunrise."

"Rule Three. All oceangoing steamers, and steamers carrying sail, shall, when under way, carry --"

"(A) At the foremast-head, a bright white light, of such a character as to be visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere at a distance of at least five miles, and so constructed as to show a uniform and unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of twenty points of the compass, and so fixed as to throw the light ten points on each side of the vessel, namely,

Page 150 U. S. 681

from right ahead to two points abaft the beam on either side."

"(B) On the starboard side, a green light, of such a character as to be visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere at a distance of at least two miles, and so constructed as to show a uniform and unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of ten points of the compass, and so fixed as to throw the light from right ahead to two points abaft the beam on the starboard side."

"(C) On the port side, a red light, of such a character as to be visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere at a distance of at least two miles, and so constructed as to show a uniform and unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of ten points of the compass, and so fixed as to throw the light from right ahead to two points abaft the beam on the port side."

"The green and red lights shall be fitted with inboard screens, projecting at least three feet forward from the lights, so as to prevent them from being seen across the bow."

"Rule Four. Steam vessels, when towing other vessels, shall carry two bright white mast-head lights vertically, in addition to their side lights, so as to distinguish them from other steam vessels. Each of these mast-head lights shall be of the same character and construction as the mast-head lights prescribed by rule three."

"Rule Five. All steam vessels, other than oceangoing steamers and steamers carrying sail, shall when under way, carry on the starboard and port sides lights of the same character and construction and in the same position as are prescribed for side lights by rule three, except in the case provided in rule six."

"Rule Six. River steamers navigating waters flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and their tributaries shall carry the following lights, namely: one red light on the outboard side of the port smoke pipe, and one green light on the outboard side of the starboard smoke pipe. Such lights shall show both forward and abeam on their respective sides."

"Rule Seven. All coasting steam vessels, and steam vessels

Page 150 U. S. 682

other than ferry boats and vessels otherwise expressly provided for, navigating the bays, lakes, rivers, or other inland waters of the United States, except those mentioned in rule six, shall carry the red and green lights, as prescribed for oceangoing steamers, and in addition thereto a central range of two white lights, the after light being carried at an elevation of at least fifteen feet above the light at the head of the vessel. The headlight shall be so constructed as to show a good light through twenty points of the compass, namely, from right ahead to two points abaft the beam on either side of the vessel, and the after light so as to show all around the horizon. The lights for ferry boats shall be regulated by such rules as the board of supervising inspectors of steam vessels shall prescribe."

"Rule Eight. Sail vessels, when under way or being towed, shall carry the same lights as steam vessels under way, with the exception of the white mast-head lights, which they shall never carry."

"Rule Nine. Whenever, as in case of small vessels during bad weather, the green and red lights cannot be fixed, these lights shall be kept on deck, on their respective sides of the vessel, ready for instant exhibition,"

etc.

"Steering and Sailing Rules"

"Rule Eighteen. If two vessels under steam are meeting end on, or nearly end on, so as to involve risk of collision, the helms of both shall be put to port, so that each may pass on the port side of the other."

"Rule Nineteen. If two vessels under steam are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way of the other."

"Rule Twenty-One. Every steam vessel, when approaching another vessel, so as to involve risk of collision, shall slacken her speed or, if necessary, stop and reverse, and every steam vessel shall, when in a fog, go at a moderate speed."

"Rule Twenty-Three. Where, by rules seventeen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-two, one of two vessels shall keep out

Page 150 U. S. 683

of the way, the other shall keep her course, subject to the qualifications of rule twenty-four."

"Rule Twenty-Four. In construing and obeying these rules, due regard must be had to all dangers of navigation, and to any special circumstances which may exist in any particular case rendering a departure from them necessary in order to avoid immediate danger."

Section 4214, in Title Forty-Eight, reads:

"The Secretary of the Treasury may case yachts used and employed exclusively as pleasure vessels, and designed as models of naval architecture, if entitled to be enrolled as American vessels, to be licensed on terms which will authorize them to proceed from port to port of the United States, and by sea to foreign ports, without entering or clearing at the custom-house. Such license shall be in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury may prescribe. The owner of any such vessel, before taking out such license, shall give a bond, in such form and for such amount as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, conditioned that the vessel shall not engage in any unlawful trade nor in any way violate the revenue laws of the United States, and shall comply with the laws in all other respects. Such vessels so enrolled and licensed shall not be allowed to transport merchandise or carry passengers for pay. Such vessels shall, in all respects except as above, be subject to the laws of the United States and shall be liable to seizure and forfeiture for any violation of the provisions of this title."

By section 4412, it was provided that

"the board of supervising inspectors shall establish such regulations to be observed by all steam vessels in passing each other as they shall from time to time deem necessary for safety."

"Inspectors' Rules and regulations for the government of pilots navigating seas, gulfs, lakes, bays, sounds, or rivers, except rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and their tributaries:"

"Rule 1. -- When steamers are approaching each other

Page 150 U. S. 684

'head and head,' or nearly so, it shall be the duty of each steamer to pass to the right, or port side of the other, and the pilot of either steamer may be first in determining to pursue this course, and thereupon shall give, as a signal of his intention, one short and distinct blast of his steam whistle, which the pilot of the other steamer shall answer promptly by a similar blast of his steam whistle, and thereupon such steamers shall pass to the right, or port side of each other. But if the course of such steamers is so far on the starboard of each other as not to be considered by pilots as meeting 'head and head,' or nearly so, the pilot so first deciding shall immediately give two short and distinct blasts of his steam whistle, which the pilot of the other steamer shall answer promptly by two similar blasts of his steam whistle, and they shall pass to the left, or on the starboard side, of each other."

"Note. -- In the night, steamers will be considered as meeting 'head and head' so long as both the colored lights of each are in view of the other."

"Rule 2. -- When steamers are approaching each other in an oblique direction (as shown in diagram of the fourth situation), they shall pass to the right of each other, as if meeting 'head and head,' or nearly so, and the signals by whistle shall be given and answered promptly as in that case specified."

"Rule 3. -- If, when steamers are approaching each other, the pilot of either vessel fails to understand the course or intention of the other, whether from signals being given or answered erroneously, or from other causes, the pilot so in doubt shall immediately signify the same by giving several short and rapid blasts of the steam whistle, and if the vessels shall have approached within half a mile of each other, both shall be immediately slowed to a speed barely sufficient for steerage-way until the proper signals are given, answered, and understood, or until the vessels shall have passed each other."

"Rule 4. -- The signals, by the blowing of the steam whistle, shall be given and answered by pilots, in compliance with these rules, not only when meeting 'head and head,' or nearly so, but at all times when passing or meeting at a distance

Page 150 U. S. 685

within half a mile of each other, and whether passing to the starboard or port."

The first seven rules of section 4233 are given, followed by diagrams illustrating the working of the system of colored lights in seven situations of meeting steamers, with observations.

Page 150 U. S. 690

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