The Maria Martin
79 U.S. 31 (1870)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

The Maria Martin, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 31 31 (1870)

The Maria Martin

79 U.S. 31

Syllabus

1. Even flagrant fault committed by one of two vessels approaching each other from opposite directions does not excuse the other from adopting every proper precaution required by the special circumstances of the case to prevent a collision.

2. Damages equally divided in a case of collision on an application of this rule.

On the night of the 22d of June, 1866, the steam propeller Cleveland, in rounding Bar Point, [Footnote 1] at the head of Lake Erie, on her way up the lake to Detroit, made the lights of a tug and tow, descending the Detroit River near its mouth into the lake, at the supposed distance of two miles. They proved to be the lights of the tug McClellan, having in tow the bark Maria Martin, bound down the lake.

At the time when the lights were made by the lookout of the propeller, this last named vessel had just obtained her offing from Bar Point and was put upon her course for Bois Blanc light, [Footnote 2] north by east. Her course had been west by north around Bar Point until she brought Bois Blanc light to bear northeast by east, when she at once steered for it. The tug, with the bark in tow, was at this time steering south-southwest. The respective courses were therefore one point divergent. The propeller made the red signal light of the tug and the red signal light of the bark from a quarter to half a point over her starboard bow. The McClellan made the green light of the propeller one-fourth of a point over her port bow. The night was a bright star light night, with a light wind from southwest. The propeller was running past the land from six to six and a half miles an hour. The tug and tow were at about the same speed. All three of the vessels had their red and green signal lights properly displayed, and they were easily distinguishable. At this time, another tug, the Muir, with five vessels in tow, was

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slowly ascending the Detroit River a little in advance of the propeller, and at about the same distance from the eastern or Canada shore. The bark was towed by means of a rope paid out from her starboard bow, four feet from the bowsprit, 360 feet, and made fast to a samson post in the deck of the tug, about midships, and some twenty-five feet from the taffrail, over which it of course played, from starboard to larboard, as the tow might sheer on the one hand or the other. As the vessels approached each other, their respective lights closed in until they were running nearly "stem on." At this juncture, and when separated by about half a mile, the tug and bark being pretty well on to the American shore, and the steamer leaving a fair berth on the Canada side, the tug sounded one sharp whistle, and in thirty seconds repeated the whistle as a signal to the propeller that she wished her to pass on her port side. The propeller responded with one blast of the whistle, and ported her helm and displayed to the tug her red signal light. The tug ported her own helm when she turned half a point and became steady on her course. The propeller ran past the tug, port side to port side, with, however, only a narrow berth between ships, when at the instant in which her stern had passed the stern of the tug, the bark collided with the propeller on her port side, the port bow of the bark striking the port bow of the steamer and the steamer sinking in ten minutes after the blow. The point of collision was about a mile and a half below Bois Blanc light, a point at which tugs usually prepare to cast off their tows, and the tows get ready to enter the lake, and in this case apparently when abreast the light, the bark had commenced making sail preparatory to hauling in her line and steering her course down the lake.

In consequence of the catastrophe, the owners of the propeller libeled the bark in the District Court for Wisconsin. It was not asserted that the tug had been guilty of any fault; the main matter relied on in support of the libel being that the bark had not followed the tug, but had made a sudden sheer. Whether she had made such a sheer or not was a

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principal point of fact in the case, and one about which much conflicting evidence was given. Numerous persons who had been on her swore that she followed straight, after the tug, but not less numerous ones who had been on the propeller swore that at the instant when her stern had passed the stern of the tug, the bark shut in her red light and showed her green light to the propeller -- a fact which, if true, would show that she had left her line of direction and shot off at nearly right angles with the course of the tug. [Footnote 3] It seemed to be in proof that the bark, though a well steering vessel, had not steered well after the tug through the night; and the allegation of the steamer was that the bark having begun to make sail preparatory to steering down the lake, had misunderstood the whistle sounded by the tug, a theory which the evidence of the mate supported. But whether she had made any such sheer as would have made this accident unavoidable, if the steamer had not been first guilty of the greatest faults, was another question; and whether, if she had made such a sheer, the steamer had not been the cause of her doing so, was yet a third one.

The reader thus sees that the case involved two points:

"First. One of more fact, dependent on conflicting testimony, which it would not be at all worth while to report, whether there was a sheer but for which the catastrophe would not have occurred."

"Second. A point of law whether, if so, it was in view of the propeller's previous conduct, a fault."

The District Court, taking one view of the evidence, considered, apparently, that the alleged sheer was nothing more than the bark's keeping on her course before she had time to swing round and follow the tug, a matter which that court considered would, to those on the steamer, look just like a sheer.

That court held, therefore, that the propeller was alone to blame, and it dismissed the libel. [Footnote 4]

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On appeal to the circuit court, while that court was fully of the opinion with the district court, that the propeller was in great fault in driving at a reckless rate in narrow water, where vessels in torn usually cut off from their tugs, and where a small channel is liable to be crowded by numerous tows -- as this channel at this time actually was crowded -- yet making a somewhat different case on the evidence from that which the district court had assumed, it inculpated the bark also. On the first point -- the liability of the steamer -- it said thus:

"It is clear that the libellants knew that the Detroit River, on account of the magnitude of its commerce, and the number of tugs with loaded vessels passing through it, had to be navigated with great watchfulness and care, and that the tug and bark whose lights they had made, as they were descending the river, could not be handled, in case of peril, as well as the propeller could. Notwithstanding these things, we find these officers managing their boat without regard to the dangers of navigating this river, and exercising no more watchfulness than if they had been navigating the open lake. Although they saw the lights of the tug and bark and pronounced them to be very bright, at the distance of two miles, yet they did not change the course of their boat until the tug had signaled them to do it, and at this time the vessels had approached within half a mile of each other. But even then, by the practice of reasonable seamanship, all trouble could have been avoided. If the propeller, instead of porting half a point, or three-fourths even, had gone a point further to the eastward, the collision could not have taken place. There was nothing in the way of her doing this, for the river was wide enough and there were no lights closing on them from the east. To put only one hundred feet between her and the tug when she could, with safety to herself, put a greater distance between them, considering the circumstances of this navigation, was bad seamanship. Watchful and careful officers, having due regard to the rights of persons and property, would not have taken the risk that the officers of the propeller did. They surely risked enough by not changing the course of their boat until she was close on to the tug. Common vigilance required that when they changed the course of the propeller,

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they should have made a more decided change. But these officers, besides not going farther to the eastward, were in fault in not checking the speed of their boat. They should not have entered a narrow river where in the night there is always more or less danger of collision, without materially slackening the speed at which they had been running. And this was only the more incumbent on them because, at so short a distance from the tug and bark, they should, as careful seamen, have apprehended the possibility of danger."

On the second point -- the liability of the bark after examining the evidence -- the circuit court said thus:

"It is plain, notwithstanding the faults of the propeller, that this disaster would not have occurred had the bark followed, as she was required to do, the course of the tug. That she did not follow after the tug, but when the propeller was abreast of the tug, sheered to the port of the tug, shutting out from the propeller her red light and showing only her green light, and continued on in this course until she struck the propeller on her port side as she was swinging to starboard, is a fact clearly established by the weight of the evidence. . . . I agree that it is not easy to reconcile the sheering of the bark with the testimony of those on board of her, but we are more concerned to know that the sheering did occur than to show how it occurred. . . . The conduct of the bark was the result of either mistaken orders or careless management. We have the testimony of the mate that an important signal was mistaken, and it is not at all unlikely that the error in management commenced with this mistake. It is in proof that the bark through the night did not steer after the tug, and as she was a good steering vessel, the inference is plain that there was a want of proper observation on the part of those who had her in charge. The approach of the propeller was not regarded by her, because the officers of the deck understood the signal of the tug for casting off line, instead of an approaching vessel. If a vessel is in tow, she is not therefore excused from keeping close watch and observing and obeying all signals. The duty of watchfulness was the greater because the river was full of boats and, light as the night was, there was more necessity for it than if it had been daylight, but this duty does not seem to have been appreciated by the officers of the bark. When the bark made the sudden

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sheer to port, the propeller not being required to anticipate it, did all she could under the circumstances -- put her wheel hard a port."

"It follows front what has been said that a decree should be entered, dividing the loss."

The case was now here on appeal by the owners of the bark. The owners of the steamer did not appeal, being content to pay half the loss, and they seeking simply an affirmance of the decree of the circuit court.

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