The Mohler, 88 U.S. 230 (1874)
U.S. Supreme CourtThe Mohler, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 230 230 (1874)
88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 230
1. Where, in a high or uncertain state of the wind, a vessel is approaching a part of the river in which there are obstructions to the navigation as, ex. gr., the piers of a bridge crossing it, between which piers she cannot, if the wind is high or squally, pass without danger of being driven on one of them, it is her duty to lie by till the wind has gone down, and she can pass in safety.
2. The officers of steamers plying the Western waters must be held to the full measure of responsibility in navigating streams where bridges are built across them.
The Home Insurance Company of New York was the insurer of a cargo of wheat shipped on a barge appurtenant to the steamer Mohler on the 12th of May, 1866, at Mankato, on the Minnesota River, in the State of Minnesota -- the river then being high -- and destined to St. Paul, on the Mississippi. The bill of lading contained the usual exception of "the dangers of navigation." The barge was wrecked by collision with one of the piers of a bridge just above the City of St. Paul, at about eight o'clock, on the evening of the day on which the voyage began, and was totally lost. *
The insurance company paid the loss, and filed its libel in the district court to recover the amount under its right of subrogation.
The answer set up that the accident occurred through a sudden and unexpected gust of wind which overtook the boat as she was about passing through the piers, and that she was therefore not answerable for the consequences of the collision.
The case was heard on the testimony introduced by the respondents, the libellant having called no witnesses.
The weather in the morning of the day when the boat set off was calm, but during the afternoon became rough and windy, so much so that the boat laid up at Mendota, near the mouth of the Minnesota River, and about four miles above the piers, on account of the wind. After sundown -- that is to say, a few minutes after seven o'clock -- she proceeded on her voyage, the wind having "abated," as the master said, or, according to the testimony of the mate, having "calmed down some." At eight, the barge struck the pier, killing a man on board and sinking the barge. The night was starlight, and the piers had signal lights upon them.
On the trial, there was great discrepancy between the testimony of the master and that of the mate as to the condition of the wind after the boat left Mendota. The master swore that there was no wind to affect the boat until the Julia, an ascending boat, got near the Mohler, while the mate said that the wind rose after the Mohler left Mendota and blew hard by spells all the way down. They also disagreed as to the point where the Julia was met, the master saying that it was not more than a quarter of a mile above the piers, while the mate fixed the distance at one and a half miles.
From Mendota down to within a short distance of these piers, high bluffs, it should be stated, line the sides of the river and prevent boats feeling or being affected by the wind, but that just before reaching the piers, the bluffs recede from the river and open so as not to operate as a protection
from the wind, and that on reaching this point wind will be felt, and sometimes very strongly, though before arriving at this point it would not be. On coming near to these parts, there was no doubt that the wind had not gone down, and that it was from a dangerous quarter, the south, the river here running east and south wind tending to drive a boat on a pier.
"When we came within about half a mile of the piers," said the pilot,
"gusts came at times hard enough to split the posts of fences, but they lulled. Then a heavy gale struck us four or five lengths above the piers. We could not have then changed our course or made a landing. Everything possible to prevent a collision was done, but the collision was inevitable."
An expert witness -- of the respondent's, of course -- on cross-examination testified that within a quarter of a mile or even less, the steamer and her tow could have rounded to and landed, even in a hard wind from the south, and that not to do so in such a case would be bad seamanship.
Other witnesses testified that these piers increase the danger of the navigation; that vessels were very liable to be driven against such obstructions; that extraordinary precaution was necessary in going through them, and then that "a man is liable to be beat at it."
Both the district and the circuit court held that the officers of the steamer were guilty of a wrongful act in attempting to pass between the piers of the bridge in the state of the weather at the time, and condemned the steamer. From this condemnation her owners appealed.