Atlee v. Packet Company,
88 U.S. 389 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Atlee v. Packet Company, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 389 389 (1874)

Atlee v. Packet Company

88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 389


1. A pier erected in the navigable water of the Mississippi River for the sole use of the riparian owner as part of a boom for saw logs, without license or authority of any kind except such as may arise from his ownership of the adjacent shore, is an unlawful structure, and the owner is liable for the sinking of a barge run against it in the night.

2. Such a structure differs very materially from wharves, piers, and others of like character, made to facilitate and aid navigation and generally regulated by city or town ordinances or by statutes of the state or other competent authority.

3. They also have a very different standing in the courts from piers built for railroad bridges across navigable streams, which are authorized by acts of Congress or statutes of the states.

4. A structure such as that above described in the first paragraph of the syllabus and which was under consideration in the present case held not to be sustained by any of these considerations.

5. A constant and familiar acquaintance with the towns, banks, trees &c., and the relation of the channel to them, and of the snags, sand bars, sunken barges, and other dangers of the river as they may arise, is essential to the character of a pilot on the navigable rivers of the interior, this class of pilots being selected, examined, and licensed for their knowledge of the topography of the streams on which they are employed, and

Page 88 U. S. 390

not like ocean pilots, chiefly for their knowledge of navigation and of charts and for their capacity to understand and follow the compass, take reckonings, make observations &c.

6. Hence, a pilot who, though engaged for many years in navigating a part of the Mississippi, had not made a trip over that part for fifteen months previously to one which he was now making, and from ignorance of its existence ran his vessel against a pier which had been built in the river since he had last gone up or down it, was held to be in fault for want of knowledge of the pier. He was also held in fault for hugging, in a dark night, the shore near where he knew the mill and boom of a riparian owner were, and against a pier connected with which he struck, when the current of the river would have carried him into safe and deep water further out.

7. Both parties being in fault, the damages are to be divided according to the admiralty rule in such case.

The Union Packet Company filed a libel in admiralty in the District Court of Iowa against Atlee founded on the sinking of a barge for which he, Atlee, was charged to be liable on the ground that it was caused by a collision with a stone pier built by him in the navigable part of the Mississippi River.

The pier was built in the winter of 1870-71; the collision occurred in April, 1871.

The district court was of opinion that Atlee had not exceeded his rights as a riparian owner in building the pier where it was in aid of his business as a lumberman and owner of a saw mill on the bank of the river, the pier being part of a boom to retain his logs until needed for sawing. But that court was further of opinion that by failing to have a light on this pier during a dark night, Atlee was guilty of a fault which rendered him in part responsible for the collision. As, however, the libellants were also found to be in fault for want of care and knowledge of this obstruction on the part of the pilot, the district court divided the damages and rendered a decree against Atlee for half of them.

The circuit court was of opinion that Atlee had no right to erect the pier where it was, and, seeing no fault on the part of the pilot, decreed the whole damage against Atlee. He accordingly appealed to this Court.

Page 88 U. S. 391

The appeal was submitted to this Court on printed argument November 26, 1873, and the decree of the circuit court was affirmed by an equal division of the Court, which was at that time composed of eight members. On application for rehearing, this decree of affirmance was set aside and a reargument ordered on the question whether the damages should be apportioned, both parties being in fault.

The reargument was accordingly made by briefs at this term, the Court being now full, and the whole matter reconsidered.

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