Steamboat Company v. Chase
83 U.S. 522

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Steamboat Company v. Chase, 83 U.S. 16 Wall. 522 522 (1872)

Steamboat Company v. Chase

83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 522

ERROR TO THE SUPREME

COURT OF RHODE ISLAND

Syllabus

A statute of a state giving to the next of kin of a person crossing upon one of its public highways with reasonable care, and killed by a common carrier by means of steamboats an action on the case for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person does not interfere with the admiralty jurisdiction of the district courts of the United States, as conferred by the Constitution and the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789, and this is so even though no such remedy enforceable through the admiralty existed when the said act was passed, or has existed since.

A statute of the state just named, [Footnote 1] passed in October, 1853, and relating to common carriers by means of steamboats, enacts:

"SECTION 16. If the life of any person crossing upon a public highway with reasonable care, shall be lost by reason of the negligence or carelessness of such common carriers, or by the unfitness or negligence or carelessness of their servants or agents in this state, such common carriers shall be liable to damages for the injury caused by the loss of life of such person, to be recovered by action on the case, for the benefit of the husband or widow and next of kin of the deceased person."

"SECTION 21. In all cases in which the death of any persons ensues from injury inflicted by the wrongful act of another, and in which an action for damages might have been maintained at the common law had death not ensued, the person inflicting such injury shall be liable to an action for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person, to be recovered by

Page 83 U. S. 523

action on the case for the use of his or her husband, widow, children, or next of kin,"

&c.

These statutory provisions being in force in Rhode Island, but no such right enforceable through the admiralty having been given by Congress, a steamer owned by the American Steamboat Company, common carriers upon Narraganset Bay (a public highway, and tidal waters running between Providence and Newport, both within Rhode Island), negligently ran over one George Cook crossing upon that bay with reasonable care in a sailboat, and killed him. Thereupon Chase, administrator of Cook, brought suit against the steamboat company in one of the state courts of Rhode Island. The company set up that the court had not jurisdiction of the cause of action on the ground that under the Constitution of the United States -- which ordains that

"The judicial power of the United States shall extend to ALL cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,"

and under the ninth section of the Judiciary Act approved September 24, 1789, which section says that

"The district courts shall have exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common law remedy when the common law is adequate to give it,"

exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was vested in the district courts; that the courts of common law had only such jurisdiction of marine torts as was conferred by the saving clause in the ninth section of the act, and that actions for damages for loss of life did not come within the clause.

The court, however, sustained the jurisdiction, and verdict and judgment having been given for the plaintiff in $12,000, and the supreme court of the state having affirmed that judgment, the cause was removed to this Court.

Page 83 U. S. 529

MR. JUSTICE CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the Court.

Remedies for marine torts, it is conceded, may be prosecuted in the admiralty courts even though the wrongful act was committed on navigable waters within the body of a county, as the exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction is conferred upon the district courts by the ninth section of the Judiciary Act. Repeated attempts were made in our early judicial history to induce the court to hold otherwise, but the court refused to adopt any other theory, and held that the entire admiralty power of the Constitution was lodged in the federal courts; that Congress intended by the ninth section of the Judiciary Act to invest the district courts with that entire power, as courts of original jurisdiction, employing the phrase "exclusive original cognizance" to express that purpose, and that it was intended that the power should be exclusive of the state courts as well as the other federal courts.

Common carriers of passengers, whether by railroad or steamboat, in case the life of a passenger in their care is lost, or the life of any person crossing upon a public highway is lost in that state by reason of the negligence or carelessness of such common carrier or by the unfitness, negligence, or carelessness of their servants or agents, are made liable by the statute law of the state to damages for the injury caused by the loss of the life of such person, to be recovered by action on the case for the benefit of the husband or widow and next of kin of the deceased person. [Footnote 2]

Provision is also made by another section of the same statute that in all cases in which the death of any person ensues from injury inflicted by the wrongful act of another, and in which an action for damages might have been maintained at the common law had death not ensued, the person inflicting such injury shall be liable to an action for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person, to be recovered by an action on the case for the use of his or her husband, widow, children, or next of kin.

Page 83 U. S. 530

Undisputed as the facts are in this case, it is not necessary to refer to them with much particularity. By the pleadings it appears that the defendants are common carriers of passengers over the waters of the Narraganset Bay, one of the public highways within the state, between the ports of Newport and Providence in the same state, and that the plaintiff is the administrator of the estate of George Cook, late of Portsmouth in that state, deceased. He was passing over the waters of the bay in a sailboat and lost his life on the 29th of June, 1869, by means of a collision between the steamboat of the defendants and the sailboat in which he was passing, and which was caused, as the plaintiff alleges, while the decedent was in the exercise of due care and wholly through the unfitness, negligence, and carelessness of the master of the steamboat. Damages are claimed by the plaintiff for the benefit of the widow and children of the deceased. Judgment was rendered for the plaintiff in the supreme court of the state in the sum of $12,000, and the defendants sued out a writ of error and removed the cause into this Court.

Two errors are assigned:

(1) That the common law courts cannot exercise jurisdiction and give a remedy for a consequential injury, growing out of a marine tort, where no remedy for such an injury exists in the admiralty courts.

(2) That a suitor cannot have a remedy in such a case in a common law court, even if the admiralty courts have jurisdiction, as the right of action was created by a state statute enacted subsequent to the passage of the Judiciary Act.

Where no remedy exists for an injury in the admiralty courts, the fact that such courts exist and exercise jurisdiction in other causes of action leaves the state courts as free to exercise jurisdiction in respect to an injury not cognizable in the admiralty as if the admiralty courts were unknown to the Constitution and had no existence in our jurisprudence. Jurisdiction to enforce maritime liens by proceedings in rem is exclusive in the admiralty courts. State courts therefore are incompetent to afford a remedy in such a case, as they do not possess the power to issue the appropriate

Page 83 U. S. 531

process to enforce the lien and give effect to the proceeding. Vested exclusively as such power is in the admiralty courts, it is settled law that the state legislatures cannot authorize state courts to exercise jurisdiction in such a case by a proceeding in rem. [Footnote 3]

Exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was conferred upon the district courts by the ninth section of the Judiciary Act, including all seizures under the laws of impost, navigation, or trade of the United States, where the seizures are made on waters which are navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burden, within their respective districts as well as upon the high seas. [Footnote 4]

Admiralty jurisdiction was conferred upon the United States by the Constitution, and inasmuch as the power conferred extends to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, it is clear and undeniable that a remedy for a marine tort may be sought in the admiralty courts, and if the injured party had survived, no doubt is entertained that he might have sought redress for his injuries in the proper admiralty court wholly irrespective of the state statute enacting the remedy there given and prescribing the form of action and the measure of damages, as the wrongful act was committed on navigable waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction conferred upon such courts by the Constitution and the laws of Congress. [Footnote 5]

Doubts, however, may arise whether the action survives in the admiralty, and if not, whether a state statute can be regarded as applicable in such a case to authorize the legal representatives of the deceased to maintain such an action for the benefit of the widow and children of the deceased. Undoubtedly the general rule is that state laws cannot extend or restrict the jurisdiction of the admiralty courts, but

Page 83 U. S. 532

it is suggested that the action may be maintained in this case without any departure from that principle, as the only practical effect allowed to the state statute is to take the case out of the operation of the common law maxim that personal actions die with the person. Most of the common law cases deny that the action is maintainable in the name of the legal representatives, and several text writers have expressed the same opinion. [Footnote 6] Judge Sprague also applied the same rule in the case of Crapo v. Allen, [Footnote 7] but in a later case [Footnote 8] he left the question open, with the remark that it cannot be regarded as settled law that an action cannot be maintained in such a case.

Statutes have been passed in many of the states giving a remedy in such cases, and in the case of Hiner v. Sea Gull, [Footnote 9] the Chief Justice held in a case where the suit was brought by the husband to recover damages to himself for the death of his wife occasioned by the fault of the defendant, that the suit was maintainable. [Footnote 10]

Difficulties, it must be conceded, will attend the solution of the question, but it is not necessary to decide it in the present case, as the jurisdiction of the state court may be supported, whether such a suit may or may not be maintained in the admiralty courts.

Sufficient has already been remarked to show that the state courts have jurisdiction if the admiralty courts have no jurisdiction, and a few observations will serve to show that the jurisdiction of the state courts is equally undeniable if it is determined that the case is within the jurisdiction of the admiralty courts. Much discussion of that topic cannot be necessary, as several decisions of this Court have established that rule as applicable in all cases where the action in the state court is in form a common law action against the

Page 83 U. S. 533

person, without any of the ingredients of a proceeding in rem to enforce a maritime lien. Where the suit is in rem against the thing, the original jurisdiction is exclusive in the district courts, as provided in the ninth section of the Judiciary Act; but when the suit is in personam against the owner, the party seeking redress may proceed by libel in the district court, or he may, at his election, proceed in an action at law, either in the circuit court if he and the defendant are citizens of different states, or in a state court as in other cases of actions cognizable in the state and federal courts exercising jurisdiction in common law cases, as provided in the eleventh section of the Judiciary Act. [Footnote 11] He may have an action at law in the case supposed either in the circuit court or in a state court, because the common law in such a case is competent to give him a remedy, and wherever the common law in such a case is competent to give a party a remedy, the right to such a remedy is reserved and secured to suitors by the saving clause contained in the ninth section of the Judiciary Act. [Footnote 12]

Suitors may have a common law remedy in all cases where the common law is competent to give it, but the defendants insist that a suitor cannot have redress in a common law court in such a case, even if the admiralty courts have jurisdiction, as the right of action was created by a state statute enacted subsequent to the passage of the Judiciary Act.

Attempt is made to deny the right to such a remedy in this case, upon the ground that the operation of the saving clause must be limited to such causes of action as were known to the common law at the time of the passage of the Judiciary Act, and the argument is that the cause of action alleged was not known to the common law at that period, which cannot be admitted, as actions to recover damages for personal injuries prosecuted in the name of the injured party were well known, even in the early history of the common law. Such actions, it must be admitted, did not ordinarily

Page 83 U. S. 534

survive, but nearly all the states have passed laws to prevent such a failure of justice, and the validity of such laws has never been much questioned. [Footnote 13]

Questions of the kind cannot arise in suits in rem to enforce maritime liens, as the common law is not competent to give such a remedy, and the jurisdiction of the admiralty courts in such cases is exclusive. Such a question can only arise in personal suits where the remedy, in the two jurisdictions, is without any substantial difference. Examined carefully it is evident that Congress intended by that provision to allow the party to seek redress in the admiralty if he saw fit to do so, but not to make it compulsory in any case where the common law is competent to give him a remedy. Properly construed, a party under that provision may proceed in rem in the admiralty, if a maritime lien arises, or he may bring a suit in personam in the same jurisdiction, or he may elect not to go into admiralty at all, and may resort to his common law remedy in the state courts, or in the circuit courts of the United States if he can make proper parties to give the circuit court jurisdiction of his case. [Footnote 14]

Different systems of pleading and modes of proceeding and different rules of evidence prevail in the two jurisdictions, but whether the party elects to go into one or the other, he must conform to the system of pleading and to the rules of practice and of evidence which prevail in the chosen forum. State statutes, if applicable to the case, constitute the rules of decision in common law actions in the circuit courts as well as in the state courts, but the rules of pleading, practice, and of evidence in the admiralty courts are regulated by the admiralty law as ultimately expounded by the decisions of this Court. state legislatures may regulate the practice, proceedings, and rules of evidence in their own courts, and those rules, under the 34th section of the Judiciary Act, become, in suits at common law, the rules of decision, where they apply, in the circuit courts.

Page 83 U. S. 535

All these are familiar principles, and they are sufficient to dispose of the case and to show that there is no error in the record.

Judgment affirmed.

[Footnote 1]

Revised Statutes, chapter 176. Of Actions.

[Footnote 2]

Revised Statutes 427.

[Footnote 3]

The Moses Taylor, 4 Wall. 411; The Hine, 4 Wall. 555; The Belfast, 7 Wall. 642.

[Footnote 4]

United States v. Bevans, 3 Wheat. 387.

[Footnote 5]

The Commerce, 1 Black 578; The Belfast, 7 Wall. 640; 2 Story on the Constitution § 1669; The Genesee Chief, 12 How. 452.

[Footnote 6]

Carey v. Railroad Co., 1 Cushing 475; Baker v. Bolton, 1 Campbell 493; Dunlap's Practice 87; Hall's Admiralty Practice 22; 2 Parsons on Shipping 351; Benedict's Admiralty, 2d ed., § 309.

[Footnote 7]

1 Sprague 184.

[Footnote 8]

Cutting v. Seabury, 1 Sprague 522.

[Footnote 9]

2 Law Times 15.

[Footnote 10]

Ford v. Monroe, 20 Wendell 210; James v. Christy, 18 Mo. 162.

[Footnote 11]

Leon v. Galceran, 11 Wall. 188.

[Footnote 12]

1 Stat. at Large 76; The Belfast, 7 Wall. 644; The Moses Taylor, 4 Wall. 411; The Hine, 4 id. 555.

[Footnote 13]

Railroad v. Barron, 5 Wall. 90.

[Footnote 14]

Leon v. Galceran, 11 Wall. 188.

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