Dutton v. Strong
Annotate this Case
66 U.S. 23 (1861)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Dutton v. Strong, 66 U.S. 1 Black 23 23 (1861)
Dutton v. Strong
66 U.S. (1 Black) 23
1. Riparian proprietors have a right to erect bridge piers and landing places on the shores of navigable rivers, lakes, bays, and arms of the sea if they conform to the regulations of the state and do not obstruct the paramount right of navigation.
2. The right to make such erections terminates at the point of navigability.
3. Where they are confined to the shore and no positive law or regulation is violated by their construction, he who alleges them to be a nuisance or an obstruction to navigation must prove it, for the presumption is the other way.
4. Piers or landing places may be either public or private, and the question whether they belong to one or the other class depends upon the purpose for which they were built, the uses to which they have been applied, the place where located, and the character of the structure.
5. A riparian proprietor may construct a pier for his own exclusive use and benefit, and where he has reserved it to himself and never held it out as intended for the use of others, no implication arises, if a party without leave moors his vessel to such a pier, that he has done so with the owner's consent.
6. Where a vessel is thus wrongfully attached to a private pier without the consent of its owner, the peril of the vessel, no matter how great, imposes no obligation upon such owner to allow her to remain and hazard his own property to save that of a trespasser.
This case came before the Supreme Court upon a writ of error to the District Court of the United States for the District
of Wisconsin. It was, in its origin, an action of trespass on the case brought by H. Norton Strong and William H. Goodnow against Achas P. Dutton and Cyrus Hines.
In 1855, Messrs. Dutton and Hines, the plaintiffs in error, owned a pier situated at Racine, upon Lake Michigan, and extending into the lake, which served the purposes both of a landing place for freight and for its stowage. This pier was private property, and although its owners, who were forwarding merchants, sometimes moored vessels, which came there upon their own business, to its timbers, it does not appear that they ever suffered anybody else to do so, or that any other person claimed the right. On the sixth of May, 1855, the ship Homer Ramsdell, owned by the defendants in error, Messrs. Strong and Goodnow, was driven by stress of weather to the neighborhood of this pier, and the captain, fearful of going ashore, made his vessel fast to it. The violence of the gale increased the pull on the hawser by which the ship was moored to such a degree that the piles began to give way under the strain, whereupon one of the owners of the pier warned the master to cut loose or they would themselves set him adrift. The master did not heed this warning, and the defendants, after waiting to see if he meant to obey it, cut the hawser. The vessel, as soon as set loose, was driven upon another pier, and to prevent her utter destruction was scuttled and sunk.
The court below was requested by the defendants in error to instruct the jury that if the evidence satisfied them that it was material for the preservation of the pier to cut the vessel loose from it, the person in charge of the pier had a right to do so, as against all rights of property in the vessel, after reasonable notice given and request made and refused for the vessel to leave. This instruction the court refused to give, and charged the jury that the pier was run out into the lake for the accommodation of commerce, and was used as private property in public business; that the vessel was liable for such damage as she was doing the pier, and that the owners of the pier were not justifiable or excusable in cutting the vessel loose if it was material for the safety or protection of the pier. To this portion of the court's charge, and to its refusal to grant two other
prayers of the defendant, not necessary to be noticed here because not considered in this Court, the defendants excepted. The verdict of the jury and the judgment of the district court were in favor of the plaintiffs, whereupon the defendants took this writ of error.