United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., Inc.
421 U.S. 397 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., Inc., 421 U.S. 397 (1975)

United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., Inc.

No. 74-363

Argued March 19, 1975

Decided May 19, 1975

421 U.S. 397




The admiralty rule of divided damages, whereby the property damage in a maritime collision or stranding is equally divided whenever two or more parties involved are found to be guilty of contributory fault, regardless of the relative degree of their fault, held replaced by a rule requiring liability for such damage to be allocated among the parties proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault, and to be allocated equally only when the parties are equally at fault or when it is not possible fairly to measure the comparative degree of their fault. Pp. 421 U. S. 401-411.

497 F.2d 1036, vacated and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

More than a century ago, in The Schooner Catharine v. Dickinson, 17 How. 170, this Court established in our admiralty law the rule of divided damages. That rule, most commonly applied in cases of collision between two vessels, requires the equal division of property damage whenever both parties are found to be guilty of contributing fault, whatever the relative degree of their fault may have been. The courts of every major maritime

Page 421 U. S. 398

nation except ours have long since abandoned that rule, and now assess damages in such cases on the basis of proportionate fault when such an allocation can reasonably be made. In the present case, we are called upon to decide whether this country's admiralty rule of divided damages should be replaced by a rule requiring, when possible, the allocation of liability for damages in proportion to the relative fault of each party.


On a clear but windy December night in 1968, the Mary A. Whalen, a coastal tanker owned by the respondent Reliable Transfer Co., embarked from Constable Hook, N.J., for Island Park, N.Y. with a load of fuel oil. The voyage ended, instead, with the vessel stranded on a sand bar off Rockaway Point outside New York Harbor.

The Whalen's course led across the mouth of Rockaway Inlet, a narrow body of water that lies between a breakwater to the southeast and the shoreline of Coney Island to the northwest. The breakwater is ordinarily marked at its southernmost point by a flashing light maintained by the Coast Guard. As, however, the Whalen's captain and a deckhand observed while the vessel was proceeding southwardly across the inlet, the light was not operating that night. As the Whalen approached Rockaway Point about half an hour later, her captain attempted to pass a tug with a barge in tow ahead, but, after determining that he could not overtake them, decided to make a 180

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