SMITH V. BURNETT, 173 U. S. 430 (1899)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Smith v. Burnett, 173 U.S. 430 (1899)

Smith v. Burnett

No. 112

Argued January 6, 9, 1899

Decided March 18, 1899

173 U.S. 430


Undoubtedly there was jurisdiction in admiralty in this case, in the courts below.

Although a wharfinger does not guarantee the safety of vessels coming to his wharves, he is bound to exercise reasonable diligence in ascertaining the conditions of the berths thereat, and if there is any dangerous obstruction, to remove it or to give due notice of its existence to vessels about to use the berths; at the same time, the master is bound to use ordinary care, and cannot carelessly run into danger.

This Court is unable to decide that the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia was not justified in holding on the evidence that appellants were liable for negligence and want of reasonable care, and that the master was free from contributory negligence, and therefore affirms the decree of the Court of Appeals which agreed with the trial court on the facts.

This is an appeal from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirming a decree of the Supreme Court of the District, sitting in admiralty, whereby appellees, original libelants in the cause, were awarded damages, and a cross-libel filed by appellants was dismissed. 10 App.D.C. 469. As stated by the Court of Appeals, the libel was filed by appellees against appellants for an alleged injury to their vessel, the schooner Ellen Tobin, while moored in berth at appellants' wharf on the bank of the Potomac at Georgetown, for the purpose of being loaded by and for appellants, and the injury complained of was averred to have been occasioned by appellants' negligently allowing a dangerous rock to remain in the bed of the river within the limits of the berth at the wharf which the vessel was invited to take, the obstruction being unknown to the master of the vessel, and he having been, moreover, assured by appellants, through their agent, that the depth of water in berth in front of the wharf was sufficient and that the berth was safe for the loading of the vessel.

The facts in general found by that court were that appellants were lessees of wharf and water rights extending to the channel of the river, and the berth assigned to and taken by the schooner for the purpose of loading was in front of their wharf and within the leased premises; that appellants were engaged in the business of crushing and shipping stone from the wharf to different points, and that the schooner had been brought up the river, by prearrangement with a ship broker in Georgetown, in order to be loaded by appellants at their wharf with crushed stone, to be taken to Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, to be used in government work at that place; that the vessel was staunch and in good repair, was a three-masted schooner of six hundred tons capacity, was registered at the New York custom house as a coasting vessel of the United States, and was owned by appellees at the time of the injury complained of. It was further found

"that the vessel was sunk on [Sunday] the 6th of August, 1893, as she was moored in the berth at the wharf, while receiving her cargo of crushed stone from the wharf by means of a chute extended from the wharf to the hatchway of the vessel. The vessel

Page 173 U. S. 432

was about two-thirds loaded, having received about four hundred tons of her cargo before signs were discovered of her distressed condition. She was then taking water so rapidly that the pumps could not relieve her, nor could the extra assistance employed by the master avail to save her from breaking and sinking in the berth. The work of loading was stopped on Saturday evening, with the intention of resuming the work of loading on the following Monday morning, and the captain of the vessel, at the time of stopping work on Saturday, made soundings around the vessel, and supposed that she was then lying all right. But on Sunday morning it was discovered that there was so much water in her that she could not be relieved by her pumps, and by 5 o'clock on the afternoon of that day, she had filled with water, and broke in the middle, and sank in her berth, where she remained, with her cargo under water, until the 1st of November, 1893, when the stone was pumped out of her, and she was then condemned as worthless, and was afterwards sold at auction for $25 to one of the owners."

Other findings of fact appeared in the opinion.

Appellants denied all negligence, and insisted that they were in no way responsible for the disaster, and in a cross-libel asserted a claim for damages caused by the fault of appellees in allowing the vessel to sink in the river in front of their wharf, and to remain there for an undue time. The evidence was voluminous and conflicting.


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