68 U.S. 43 (1863)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Commander-in-Chief, 68 U.S. 1 Wall. 43 43 (1863)


68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 43


1. Parties excepting to a report of a commissioner in admiralty proceedings should state with reasonable precision the grounds of their exceptions, with the mention of such other particulars as will enable the court to ascertain, without unreasonable examination of the record, what the basis of the exception is. Ex. gr., if the exception be that the commissioner received "improper and immaterial evidence," the exception should show what the evidence was. If that "he had no evidence to justify his report," it should set forth what evidence he did have. If that he admitted the evidence of "witnesses who were not competent," it should give their names, and specify why they were incompetent, what they swore to, and why their evidence ought to have been rejected.

2. This same necessity for specification it is declared -- though the case was not decided on that ground, the point not having been raised on argument -- exists in a high degree in regard to an answer put in to an admiralty

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claim, which answer ought to be full, explicit, and distinct, and hence a defense to a libel for collision which sets forth that the injured vessel "lay in an improper manner, and in an improper place," without showing in any respect wherein the manner, or why the place was improper, is insufficient, it seems, as being too indefinite.

3. Objections to want of proper parties being matter which should be taken in the court below, a party cannot, in an admiralty proceeding by the owners of a vessel, to recover damages for a cargo lost on their ship by collision, object here for the first time that the owners of the vessel were not the owners of the cargo, and therefore that they cannot sustain the libel. Independently of this, as vessels engaged in transporting merchandise from port to port are "carriers" -- if not exactly "common carriers" -- and as carriers are liable for its proper custody, transport and delivery, so that nothing but the excepted perils of the sea, the act of God, or public enemies, can discharge them -- it would seem that they might sustain the action within the principle of the Propeller Commerce, 1 Black 582.

Appeal from a decree of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York in a cause of collision, the case being thus:

La Tourette & Butler, appellees in the case, were owners of the schooner William Clark and filed their libel in the district court of the United States for that district, alleging, among other things, that on the 26th of January, 1860, the schooner of the claimants, called the Commander-in-chief, while their schooner lay safely at anchor to the north and east of Little Egg Harbor, and about a half a mile from the New Jersey shore, came down, under full sail, and ran into her, cutting her through, abreast of the main chains. The allegation was that the William Clark sank within fifteen minutes after the collision, and the claim was for a total loss both of the vessel and the cargo. The collision occurred about ten o'clock in the evening. The libellants alleged that it was a clear moonlight night; that their schooner was properly anchored, and had a competent watch on deck, and a bright light set in the rigging, and that the collision occurred in consequence of the negligence, mismanagement and unseamanlike conduct of those in charge of the vessel of the respondents, and without any fault on the part of those in charge of their own vessel.

Page 68 U. S. 45

The answer of the claimants, in general terms, denied the material matters alleged in the libel. A separate denial of each article was interposed, and the substance of the defense was that the collision, if it occurred at the time and place alleged in the libel, was occasioned through the fault of the officers and crew of the vessel of the libellants, the respondents alleging, in the general terms quoted, that the vessel of the libellants

"lay in an improper manner and in an improper place, without a light or other necessary precautions, and that the collision, so far as their vessel was concerned, was unavoidable."

Testimony was taken by both parties. It showed that the schooner of the libellants, bound from Indian River, in Delaware, to the City of New York, anchored a mile or two to the northward of Little Egg Harbor light (a place where vessels frequently sail), in consequence of the severity of the cold, and because it was blowing so heavily that those in charge of her did not deem it safe to proceed on the voyage. It was proved, however, that the anchorage was not an improper one, and that a number of vessels were anchored still further in the general track, towards the south. The master of the Commander-in-chief swore it was a moonlight night -- very cold.

"There was a vapor on the water. Anything above the vapor you could see a good way; but a vessel's hull you could not see beyond a short distance. You could see a light half a mile."

He then proceeded to state some facts from which the conclusion was inferable that there was no light, but the proofs of the other side were full that there was a light and that it was suspended in the rigging of the injured vessel, some twelve feet above the deck, and moreover that the mate was on deck as a lookout.

After a full hearing, an interlocutory decree was entered in favor of the libellants and the cause referred to a commissioner to ascertain and compute the amount due to the libellants for the actual damages to the vessel and cargo occasioned by the collision. The commissioner having made and returned his report, by which he gave a specific sum as the value of the vessel, and an additional specific sum as the value

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of the cargo, the respondents filed nine exceptions to the report as follows:

1. "That the commissioner allowed improper and immaterial evidence to be put in by libellants" the exception, however, not stating what the evidence was.

2. "That he had no evidence to justify his report," the exception not setting forth what evidence he did have.

3. "That he reported more than the evidence warranted," the exception stating nothing further.

4. That he had "failed to report the principle of the decree."

5. That he "admitted evidence of witnesses as to the value of the vessel on the part of the libellant, who were not competent as to that fact, and whose evidence should have been rejected," no names of witnesses being given nor any specification of the reasons why they were incompetent, nor what they swore to, nor why their evidence should have been rejected.

6. That he "reported the value of the cargo as part of the damage," when the libellant is not entitled to recover therefor.

7. That the evidence showed the vessel to be of far less value than the report made it.

8. That the loss of the vessel was not the necessary or actual results of the injury to the vessel.

9. That the loss is shown to have been incurred by the fault of the libellant or his agents.

The court, after full argument, overruled these exceptions, including the sixth, and entered a final decree in favor of the libellants for the amounts reported. Appeal was then taken by the respondents to the circuit court, where the parties were again fully heard and the decree of the district court affirmed, whereupon the respondents appealed to this Court, and now sought to reverse the last-named decree.

Page 68 U. S. 48

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