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THE BRITANNIA, 153 U. S. 130 (1894)

U.S. Supreme Court

The Britannia, 153 U.S. 130 (1894)

The Britannia

Nos. 340, 341, and 342

Argued April 3-4, 1894

Decided April 23, 1894

153 U.S. 130


In entering the port of New York, the steamship Britannia came so close to Governor's Island as to graze the bottom. This made it necessary for her pilot to direct the engines to be put at full speed till she cleared the ground. After that, the speed of the vessel was slowed, and her wheel was put hard-a-port to round into East River. About the time of touching bottom, the Britannia sighted the steamship Beaconsfield on her starboard bow, and blew a single whistle. The Beaconsfield, going out from the port, had also seen the Britannia when it came around Governor's Island, and about the time it was disengaging itself from the ground, blew a single blast of her whistle, put her helm to port a little, and went on at a slow speed. The whistle of the Britannia was heard upon the Beaconsfield, but that of the Beaconsfield was not heard on the Britannia. After clearing the bottom and reducing her speed, the Britannia did not respond promptly to her helm, owing to the fact that the condition of the wind and tide was such as to form a flood eddy on the north side of the channel between the Battery and Governor's Island, and an ebb tide on the south side of the channel. These tides operate to turn the head of a vessel attempting to enter the East River near Castle William to the westward as it crosses the ebb until it enters the flood eddy. Such tidal action, and its effect upon vessels, were known to the pilot of the Beaconsfield, and should have been known to the pilot of the Britannia. It retarded the efforts of the Britannia to pass astern of the Beaconsfield. The Beaconsfield thereupon blew another single whistle, and, hearing no answer, put her wheel hard-a-port, stopped her engines and reversed full speed. Her engines were kept in this condition until her headway was stopped. Then she lay still in the water until struck by the Britannia and sunk.


Page 153 U. S. 131

(1) [All concurring,] That the Britannia was in fault in running, at a place where she was liable to meet outward going vessels, across the ebb tide in such a way that the current prevented her from answering her helm with promptness, and that such fault was enough to render her liable in whole or in part for the loss occasioned by the collision.

(2) [BROWN and JACKSON, JJ., dissenting,] That the Beaconsfield was also in fault (a) in disregarding Rule 23 of the Rules for preventing Collisions on the Water, Rev.Stat. § 4233, directing that when, by Rule 19, one of two vessels shall keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course, subject to the qualifications of Rule 24, and (b) in remaining motionless for a minute and a half, in full view of the tardy motions of the Britannia in getting astern.

The statement in Finding 31 that

"the conduct of those in charge of the Beaconsfield . . . does not warrant the inference that there was, on their part, negligence contributory to produce the collision,"

is not a finding of fact, within the meaning of the rule, but is a conclusion of law upon the previous facts.

The Act of August 19, 1890, c. 802, 26 Stat. 320, not having been proclaimed by the President, as required by sec. 3 thereof, it is not yet operative, and this Court is not bound by the construction put by English courts on Art. 21, providing that "where by any of these rules, one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed."

In the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York, George Cleugh, of Newcastle, England, filed his libel and complaint, as owner of the steamship Beaconsfield, against the steamship Britannia, alleging that, on the 19th day of November, 1886, the Beaconsfield, while proceeding to sea loaded with a full cargo of grain, between Governor's Island and the Battery, was run into by the Britannia, bound in from sea, and so badly damaged that she sank shortly afterwards in shoal water, to which she had been towed by tug boats, and suffered damage, with loss of freight, to the amount of $48,000. The libel further alleged that the Britannia was running at too high a rate of speed for the place the vessels were in, without proper lookout or sufficient attention to her navigation, and without regard to the rules of navigation, and that the Beaconsfield was wholly without fault. An amended libel was subsequently filed containing a more detailed statement of the position and movements of the vessels at the time of the collision.

Page 153 U. S. 132

To this original and amended libel the owners of the Britannia filed an answer traversing those allegations which attributed fault to the Britannia, alleging that the Beaconsfield had been carelessly and negligently managed in several particulars, which caused the collision, and praying that the libel be dismissed.

Subsequently, J. L. Cotton, master, and George Cleugh, owner, of the Beaconsfield, filed another and joint libel against the Britannia to recover for loss of cargo, containing substantially the same allegations as those made in the libel previously field by Cleugh. This libel was likewise amended so as to make a more particular and detailed statement of the facts as claimed by the libelants.

To this libel an answer was duly filed by the owners of the Britannia denying fault on her part and alleging careless and improper management of the Beaconsfield, which was the real cause of the collision. They also gave security and procured the discharge of their vessel. Thereafter the owners of the Britannia filed a petition against the Beaconsfield, again charging the fault of the collision upon her, alleging damages suffered by the Britannia, and praying process against the Beaconsfield, to the end that such damages might be assessed in the same suit.

This petition was met by an answer on the part of George Cleugh, the owner of the Beaconsfield, traversing the allegations of the petition.

At a subsequent term, the owners of the Britannia filed in the same court a libel and complaint, subsequently amended, against the Beaconsfield containing a detailed statement of the transaction and praying process against and condemnation of the Beaconsfield. To this libel, as amended, exceptions were filed on behalf of the owner of the Beaconsfield on the ground of insufficiency and indefiniteness in certain particulars. Some of these exceptions were sustained, which led to a further amendment of said libel. An answer to the amended libel was then filed by the owner of the Beaconsfield.

These three cases were so proceeded in that, on the 9th day of July, 1889, final decrees were entered, adjudging that both

Page 153 U. S. 133

the Britannia and the Beaconsfield were in fault, and apportioning the damages between them in such a way that there was found due from the Britannia to the Beaconsfield the sum of $14,978.90, and that there was due by the Britannia to J. L. Cotton and George Cleugh, as bailees of the cargo of wheat laden on the Beaconsfield, the sum of $25, 124.63, being a moiety of the whole loss to cargo, the other moiety of said loss being adjudged against the Beaconsfield. 34 F. 546.

From these decrees of the district court appeals were taken by the owners of both vessels to the circuit court. That court held that the Britannia was alone in fault, and accordingly dismissed the libel of the Britannia and awarded to Cleugh's executor for the damages to the Beaconsfield $38,808.05, with costs, and to Cotton, for damages to the cargo, $52,925.46, with costs. 42 F. 67.

From all three decrees the owners of the Britannia have appealed to this Court.

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