The Propeller Genesee Chief
Annotate this Case
53 U.S. 443 (1851)
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U.S. Supreme Court
The Propeller Genesee Chief, 53 U.S. 12 How. 443 443 (1851)
The Propeller Genesee Chief
53 U.S. (12 How.) 443
The Act of Congress passed 26 February, 1845, 5 Stat. 726, extending the jurisdiction of the district courts to certain cases upon the lakes and navigable waters connecting the same is consistent with the Constitution of the United States.
It does not rest upon the power granted to Congress to regulate commerce.
But it rests upon the ground that the lakes and navigable waters connecting them are within the scope of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, as known and understood in the United States, when the Constitution was adopted.
The admiralty and maritime jurisdiction granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States is not limited to tidewaters, but extends to all public navigable lakes and rivers, where commerce is carried on between different states, or with a foreign nation.
In the present case of collision between a vessel navigated by steam and a sailing vessel, the evidence shows that the former was in fault.
It is the duty of every steamboat to keep a trustworthy person employed as a lookout, and if there be none such additional to the helmsman, or if he was not stationed in a proper place, or not vigilantly employed in his duty, it must be regarded as prima facie evidence that the collision was the fault of the steamboat.
This was a libel filed by Fitzhugh, Littlejohn, and Peck.
The libellants filed their libel in the District Court for the Northern District of New York against the propeller Genesee Chief and Pierce as master, in which they allege that they were the owners of the schooner Cuba, a vessel of fifty tons burden and upwards, enrolled and licensed for the coasting trade and employed in the business of commerce and navigation between ports and places in different states and territories upon the lakes, and navigable waters connecting said lakes. That said schooner, at the time of the loss and collision thereinafter mentioned, was laden with five thousand nine hundred and fifty-five bushels of wheat, and on Lake Ontario, about forty miles below Niagara, bound from Sandusky, in the State of Ohio, to Oswego, in the State of New York. That the propeller Genesee Chief, of which the appellant Pierce was master and being a vessel of fifty tons burden and upwards, duly enrolled and
licensed as aforesaid and then actually engaged in commerce and navigation as aforesaid, while at the place aforesaid, on the sixth day of May, 1847, by the carelessness and negligence of the master and crew ran foul of and sunk the said schooner with her cargo, and concluding with the usual prayer for the condemnation of the vessel and for the payment of the damage.
The claimants of Alexander Kelsey and others, and the master, put in their joint and several answer to the libel, admitting the collision and the loss of the Cuba but denying that the collision happened from any want of care, negligence, or mismanagement of the master or crew of the propeller, and alleging that the collision occurred in consequence of and was occasioned by the carelessness, ignorance, mismanagement and want of skill of the master and crew of the Cuba. The answer also contains the following objection to the jurisdiction of the court:
"And these respondents aver that the respondents Alexander Kelsey, William H. Cheney, Lansing B. Swan, George R. Clarke, Elisha B. Strong, and William L. Pierce are all citizens of the State of New York, and that the said Henry Fitzhugh and Dewitt C. Littlejohn are also citizens of the State of New York, and they also aver that the collision set forth in the said libel occurred within the territorial boundaries of the said state, and not on the high seas nor in any arm of the sea, river, creek, stream, or other body of water where the tide ebbs and flows, and therefore they say that this Court has no jurisdiction over the matters set forth in the said libel, and they pray that the same effect may be given to their defense in this respect as if the same were made by special plea or exception."
The cause was tried before his honor the district judge in April, 1848, and a decree passed in favor of the libellants. The respondents appealed to the circuit court, and the cause was tried in that court in June, 1849. The decree of the district court was affirmed.
The master of the propeller, Pierce, was allowed to file a separate answer in the circuit court, and he was sworn as a witness for the claimants.
From this decree the owners of the propeller appealed to this Court.