Norwich Company v. Wright
80 U.S. 104 (1871)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Norwich Company v. Wright, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 104 104 (1871)

Norwich Company v. Wright

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 104

Syllabus

1. The act of Congress of 1851, limiting the liability of shipowners, includes collisions, as well as injuries to cargo, so that if a collision happens between two vessels at sea and one of them is in fault without the privity or knowledge of her owners, the latter will only be liable for the amount of their interest in the vessel and her freight then pending, and that amount being paid into court, if insufficient to pay all the damages caused, will be apportioned pro rata amongst the owners of the injured vessel and of the cargoes of both vessels in proportion to their respective losses.

2. This liability of the shipowners may be discharged by their surrendering and assigning to a trustee for the benefit of the parties injured, in pursuance of the 4th section of the act, the vessel and freight, although these may have been diminished in value by the collision, or other casualty during the voyage, and it seems that if they are totally lost, the owners will be entirely discharged.

3. In this respect, the act has adopted the rule of the maritime law as contradistinguished from that of the English statutes on the same subject.

4. The district court, sitting as a court of admiralty, has jurisdiction of cases arising, under the act and may administer the law as provided in the 4th section.

5. The proper course of proceeding in such a case pointed out.

On the 3d of March, 1851, Congress passed an act [Footnote 1] as follows -- the

Page 80 U. S. 105

sections in brackets, i.e., 2d and 5th sections, not being specially important in this case, and inserted only to give a more full view of the act:

"SEC. 1. No owner or owners of any ship or vessel shall be subject or liable to answer for or make good to anyone or more person or persons, any loss or damage which may happen to any goods or merchandise whatsoever, which shall be shipped, taken in, or put on board any such ship or vessel, by reason or by means of any fire happening to or on board the said ship or vessel, unless such fire is caused by the design or neglect of such owner or owners, provided that nothing in this act contained shall prevent the parties from making such contract as they please, extending or limiting the liability of shipowners."

"[SEC. 2. If any shipper or shippers of platina, gold, gold dust, silver, bullion, or other precious metals, coins, jewelry, bills of any bank or public body, diamonds or other precious stones, shall lade the same on board of any ship or vessel without, at the time of such lading, giving to the master, agent, owner or owners of the ship or vessel receiving the same a note in writing of the true character and value thereof, and have the same entered on the bill of lading therefor, the master and owner or owners of the said vessel shall not be liable, as carriers thereof, in any form or manner. Nor shall any such master or owners be liable for any such valuable goods beyond the value and according to the character thereof so notified and entered.]"

"SEC. 3. The liability of the owner or owners of any ship or vessel for any embezzlement, loss or destruction, by the master, officers, mariners, passengers, or any other person or persons, of any property, goods, or merchandise, shipped or put on board of such ship or vessel, or for any loss, damage or injury by collision, or for any act, matter or thing, loss, damage or forfeiture, done, occasioned or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of such owner or owners, shall in no case exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner or owners respectively, in such ship or vessel, and her freight then pending."

"SEC. 4. If any such embezzlement, loss, or destruction shall be suffered by several freighters or owners of goods, wares, or merchandise, or any property whatever, on the same voyage, and the whole value of the ship or vessel, and her freight for the voyage, shall not be sufficient to make compensation to each

Page 80 U. S. 106

of them, they shall receive compensation from the owner or owners of the ship or vessel, in proportion to their respective losses, and for that purpose the said freighters and owners of the property, and the owner or owners of the ship or vessel, or any of them, may take the appropriate proceedings in any court for the purpose of apportioning the sum for which the owner or owners of the ship or vessel may be liable amongst the parties entitled thereto. And it shall be deemed a sufficient compliance with the requirements of this act, on the part of such owner or owners if he or they shall transfer his or their interest in such vessel and freight, for the benefit of such claimants, to a trustee, to be appointed by any court of competent jurisdiction, to act as such trustee for the person or persons who may prove to be legally entitled thereto, from and after which transfer all claims and proceedings against the owner or owners shall cease."

"[SEC. 5. The charterer or charterers of any ship or vessel, in case he or they shall man, victual, and navigate such vessel at his or their own expense, or by his or their own procurement, shall be deemed the owner or owners of such vessel within the meaning of this act, and such ship or vessel, when so chartered, shall be liable in the same manner as if navigated by the owner or owners thereof.]"

"SEC. 6. Nothing in the preceding sections shall be construed to take away or affect the remedy to which any party may be entitled, against the master, officers, or mariners, for or on account of any embezzlement, injury, loss or destruction of goods, wares, merchandise, or other property, put on board any ship or vessel, or on account of any negligence, fraud or other malversation of such master, officers, or mariners, respectively; nor shall anything herein contained lessen or take away any responsibility to which any master or mariner of any ship of vessel may now by law be liable, notwithstanding such master or mariner may be an owner or part owner of the ship or vessel."

This statute being in force, the schooner Van Vliet, on the night of 18th of April, 1866, making three or four knots an hour, and the steamer City of Norwich, making twelve -- the schooner's course being nearly at right angles to that of the steamer -- collided in Long Island Sound. The schooner sank, and both she and her cargo were lost. The steamer was greatly damaged by the blow, and, taking

Page 80 U. S. 107

fire, sank also. Her cargo was lost, but she herself was subsequently raised and repaired at great expense.

Hereupon the owners of the schooner filed a libel in personam in the district court for the District of Connecticut against the owners of the steamer. The owners of the steamer, by way of defense, stating that the steamer had on board

"a large and valuable freight belonging to various parties, much larger in value than the whole amount of the interest of the defendants in the said steamer and of her freight then pending,"

and that the whole of it was lost, set up that they were not in fault; that the night was dark; that the schooner had no lights; that she was seen first by the head of her sails being lighted up by the steamer's lights.

These matters set up, however, were not proved.

On the contrary, although several witnesses who saw the light of the schooner after the collision, testified that the green or starboard light was dim, it was clearly proved that the light was there, and there was very strong evidence to show that it was burning brightly at the time of the collision, having been specially examined both before and after it. It appeared also that the officers of another steamer, the Electra, three-quarters of a mile in the rear of the City of Norwich and directly in her track, had seen the schooner a full mile off, and some time before the occurrence happened, they seeing her, as the pilot of the Electra testified, one point on their port bow when the City of Norwich was dead ahead. This witness stated that the schooner was a mile off from the Electra when he saw her, and that this was two minutes before the collision; that the City of Norwich blew her whistle immediately after the collision; and that he discovered the schooner two or three minutes before he heard the sound.

The district court, after interlocutory decree in favor of the libellants, and a reference to a master, and a report, decreed for the libellants, $19,975 for the schooner and $1,921 for her cargo, with interest from the date of collision. Before the decree was passed, the respondents filed a petition wherein they alleged that proceedings in rem had been

Page 80 U. S. 108

commenced in behalf of said parties against the steamer in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of New York for the recovery of damages for the loss of the said cargo. They therefore prayed that they might be permitted to show by proper evidence the whole amount of damages sustained by all of said parties, including the libellants, and the value of the steamer and her freight then pending, and that the decree of the court might be so framed as to give the libellants such part or proportion of the amount of damages sustained by them as the value of steamer and freight bore to the whole amount of damages sustained by all parties by the collision. In reference to this last defense, the libellants insisted:

1. That the act does not embrace injuries to other vessels by collision, but only injuries to, or loss of, cargo on board the offending vessel, and

2. That if it did embrace injuries by collision, the district court, in that proceeding, had no power to give the respondents the relief which they sought.

The district court held that cases of collision were within the act, but deemed the jurisdiction of that court insufficient to give relief. On appeal, the circuit court held that cases of collision were not within the act. Hereupon the libellants appealed to this Court. The appeal brought up all the questions in the cause.

Page 80 U. S. 114

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