Atlee v. Packet Co

In Atlee v. The Nw. Union Packet Co., 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 389, 22 L.Ed. 619 (1874), a barge collided with a stone pier built into a river, and suit was brought in admiralty by the barge owner for recovery. The District Court found mutual fault on the part of the pier owner and the barge's pilot, but the Court of Appeals reversed in part, finding no fault on the part of the pilot. The Supreme Court reversed and held that the pilot was at fault. It observed: "The pilot of a river steamer . . . is selected for his personal knowledge of the topography through which he steers his vessel. . . . He must know where the navigable channel is . . . . He must also be familiar with all dangers that are permanently located in the course of the river. . . . To do this he must be constantly informed of changes in the current of the river, of sand-bars newly made, of logs or snags, or other objects newly presented against which his vessel might be injured." Id. at 396, 22 L.Ed. at 621. The Court acknowledged that it was exacting a very high order of ability. The pilot had been absent for a year and thus did not know what "any pilot who, during the navigable season of the year 1870, was engaged in conveying vessels up and down the Mississippi River past Fort Madison, would have known . . . ." Id. at 397, 22 L.Ed. at 622. The Court noted that after so long an absence the pilot should make a few trips with other pilots more familiar with the river. It concluded that "there was such want of knowledge and skill in the pilot, and such want of care in his management of his vessel at that point" as to lead to the conclusion that the pilot was at fault. Id. at 398, 22 L.Ed. at 622. In Atlee v. Packet Co., 21 Wall. 389, 88 U.S. 389 (1874) a barge owned by the libellant was sunk by striking a stone pier owned by the respondent, built in the navigable part of the Mississippi River. Both parties being found in fault by the District Court, that court divided the damages sustained by the libellant, and rendered a decree against the owner of the pier for one-half of them. The Circuit Court held the owner of the pier to be wholly in fault, and decreed the entire damage against him. He having appealed, this court, after two hearings of the case, reversed the decree of the Circuit Court and reinstated that of the District Court. In the opinion of this court, delivered by Mr. Justice Miller, the case is treated as one of collision. The pier having been placed by the respondent in the navigable water of the Mississippi River without authority of law, this court held him to be responsible for the damages sustained by the libellant from the striking of the pier by the barge. It held also that there was negligence on the part of the barge, and said (p. 395): "But the plaintiff has elected to bring his suit in an admiralty court, which has jurisdiction of the case, notwithstanding the concurrent right to sue at law. In this court the course of proceeding is in many respects different and the rules of decision are different. The mode of pleading is different, the proceeding more summary and informal, and neither party has a right to trial by jury. An important difference as regards this case is the rule for estimating the damages. In the common law court the defendant must pay all the damages or none. If there has been on the part of the plaintiffs such carelessness or want of skill as the common law would esteem to be contributory negligence, they can recover nothing. By the rule of the Admiralty Court, where there has been such contributory negligence, or, in other words, when both have been in fault, the entire damages resulting from the collision must be equally divided between the parties. This rule of the admiralty commends itself quite as favorably in its influence in securing practical justice as the other; and the plaintiff who has the selection of the forum in which he will litigate cannot complain of the rule of that forum." The Supreme Court, therefore, treated the case as if it had been one of a collision between two vessels.