Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States,
389 U.S. 191 (1967)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States, 389 U.S. 191 (1967)

Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States

No. 31

Argued October 16-17, 1967

Decided December 4, 1967

389 U.S. 191


This case involves two libels arising out of the allegedly negligent sinking of vessels in navigable waterways of the United States. In United States v. Carill, Inc., the Government, after being notified of the sinking and abandonment of two barges, sought a decree that the parties responsible for the allegedly negligent sinking be declared responsible for removing the impediment to navigation which the wrecks constituted. In United States v. Wyandotte Transportation Co., the Government claimed that a barge had been negligently sunk and demanded that the wreck be removed. When this demand was rejected, the Government removed the sunken barge and cargo and brought suit in rem against the barge and its cargo and in personam against the barge owner and others to effect reimbursement for the substantial costs of removal. The District Court consolidated the actions and granted summary judgment in each instance against the United States, holding that the Government has no in personam rights against those responsible for having negligently sunk a vessel, but that it is limited to an in rem right against the vessel and its cargo. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for trial on the issue of negligence. It held that, under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, as amended, the Government may assert in personam rights against those responsible for the negligent sinking of a vessel. Section 15 of the Act makes it unlawful to "carelessly sink, or permit or cause to be sunk a vessel in navigable waters." Petitioners contend that the Act's specific remedies, which include criminal penalties, are exclusive, and preclude the Government from obtaining the relief it has sought in the two libels. They note that, under the Act, failure to remove a vessel is considered an abandonment, and subjects a craft to removal by the Government, which may retain the proceeds of the sale of a wreck.

Held: The remedies and procedures for the enforcement of § 15 are not exclusive, and do not foreclose in personam relief against a party who negligently sinks a vessel in a navigable waterway. Pp. 389 U. S. 200-210.

Page 389 U. S. 192

(a) The Government is a principal beneficiary of the Act, which was obviously intended to prevent obstructions in the Nation's waterways. P. 389 U. S. 201.

(b) The general rule that the United States may sue to protect its interest is not necessarily inapplicable when the interest sought to be protected is expressed in a statute containing criminal penalties for its violation. Pp. 389 U. S. 201-202.

(c) The criminal penalties of the Act and the Government's in rem rights would not adequately reimburse the Government for removal expenses. P. 389 U. S. 202.

(d) The principles of United States v. Republic Steel Corp., 362 U. S. 482 (1960), where the Government was allowed injunctive relief to compel removal of an obstruction in a waterway even though such relief was nowhere specifically authorized in the Act, are applicable, by analogy, to the issues here. Pp. 389 U. S. 202-203.

(e) The availability to the Government of declaratory relief in the form of an order that a negligent party is responsible for rectifying the wrong done to maritime commerce by a violation of § 15 is inferable from the prohibition contained in that section. P. 389 U. S. 204.

(f) The exercise by the Government of the right of removal provided by the statute des not relieve negligent parties of the responsibility for making restitution for the removal. P. 389 U. S. 205.

(g) Petitioners err in believing that the abandonment portions of the Act confer an absolute right upon a shipowner to abandon his sunken craft with no in personam liability. Those provisions merely grant a right of removal to the Government, and do not negate the Government's rights to declaratory relief or to recover removal expenses. Pp. 389 U. S. 206-207.

(h) There is no support in the statute, in the legislative history, or in nonstatutory law, for the rule that a shipowner who has negligently sunk a vessel may abandon it and be insulated from all but in rem liability. Pp. 389 U. S. 208-209.

367 F.2d 971, affirmed.

Page 389 U. S. 193

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