Annotate this Case
119 U.S. 199 (1886)
U.S. Supreme Court
The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199 (1886)
Argued April 7, 1886
Decided November 15, 1886
119 U.S. 199
In the absence of an act of Congress or a statute of a state giving a right of action therefor, a suit in admiralty cannot be maintained in the courts of the united states to recover damages for the death of a human being on the high seas or on waters navigable from the sea which is caused by negligence.
If a suit in rem can be maintained in admiralty against an offending vessel for the recovery of damages for the death of a human being on the high seas or on waters navigable from the sea which is caused by negligence when an action at law is given therefor by statute in the state where the wrong was done or where the vessel belonged (which is not decided), it must be commenced within the period prescribed by the state statute for the beginning of process there, the time within which the suit should be commenced operating as a limitation of the liability created by statute, and not of the remedy only.
The following is the case, as stated by the Court.
This is a suit in rem begun in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on the 25th of February, 1882, against the steamer Harrisburg by the widow and child of Silas E. Rickards, deceased, to recover damages for his death, caused by the negligence of the steamer in a collision with the schooner Marietta Tilton on the 16th of May, 1877, about one hundred yards from the Cross Rip light ship in a sound of the sea embraced between the coast of Massachusetts and the Islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, parts of the State of Massachusetts. The steamer was engaged at the time of the collision in the coasting trade, and belonged to the port of Philadelphia, where she
was duly enrolled according to the laws of the United States. The deceased was first officer of the schooner and a resident of Delaware, where his widow and child also resided when the suit was begun.
The statutes of Pennsylvania in force at the time of the collision provided that
"Whenever death shall be occasioned by unlawful violence or negligence, and no suit for damages be brought by the party injured during his or her life, . . . the husband, widow, children, or parents of the deceased, and no other relative, . . . may maintain an action for and recover damages for the death thus occasioned. . . . The action shall be brought within one year after the death, and not thereafter."
Brightly's Purdon's Dig., 11th ed., 1267, §§ 3-5; Act April 15, 1851, § 18; Act April 6, 1855, §§ 1, 2.
By a statute of Massachusetts relating to railroad corporations, it was provided that
"If, by reason of the negligence or carelessness of a corporation, or of the unfitness or gross negligence of its servants or agents while engaged in its business, the life of any person, being in the exercise of due diligence, . . . is lost, the corporation shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand nor less than five hundred dollars, to be recovered by indictment, and paid to the executor or administrator for the use of the widow and children. . . . Indictments against corporations for loss of life shall be prosecuted within one year from the injury causing the death."
Mass.Gen.Stats. 1860, c. 63, §§ 97-99; Stat. 1874, c. 372, § 163.
No innocent parties had acquired rights to or in the steamer between the date of the collision and the bringing of the suit.
Upon this state of facts, the circuit court gave judgment against the steamer in the sum of $5,100 for the following reasons:
"1. In the admiralty courts of the United States, the death of a human being upon the high seas, or waters navigable from the sea, caused by negligence, may be complained of as an injury, and the wrong redressed, under the general maritime law."
"2. The right of the libellants does not depend upon the
statute law of either the State of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, and the limitation of one year in the statutes of these states does not bar this proceeding."
"3. Although an action in the state courts of either Massachusetts or Pennsylvania would be barred by the limitation expressed in the statutes of those states, the admiralty is not bound thereby, and in this case will not follow the period of limitation therein provided and prescribed. The drowning complained of was caused by the improper navigation, negligence, and fault of the said steamer, producing the collision aforesaid, and the libellants are entitled to recover."
"4. As there are no innocent rights to be affected by the present proceedings, and no inconvenience will result to the respondents from the delay attending it, the action, if not governed by the statutes aforesaid, is not barred by the libellant's laches."
15 F. 610.
From that decree this appeal was taken.
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