70 U.S. 20 (1865)

3 Wall. 20


Supreme Court of United States.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. A.W. Arrington, in favor of the jurisdiction.

Mr. Spalding, contra.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court:

The court below dismissed the libel for want of jurisdiction; and that question is the only one that has been argued in this court.

It will be observed, that the entire damage complained of by the libellants, as proceeding from the negligence of the master and crew, and for which the owners of the vessel are sought to be charged, occurred, not on the water, but on the land. The origin of the wrong was on the water, but the substance and consummation of the injury on land. It is admitted by all the authorities, that the jurisdiction of the admiralty over marine torts depends upon locality — the high seas, or other navigable waters within admiralty cognizance; and, being so dependent upon locality, the jurisdiction is limited to the sea or navigable waters not extending beyond high-water mark.

In the case of Thomas v. Lane,* Mr. Justice Story, in a case where the imprisonment was stated in the libel to be on shore, observed: "In regard to torts, I have always understood that the jurisdiction of the admiralty is exclusively dependent upon the locality of the act. The admiralty has not, and never, I believe, deliberately claimed to have, any jurisdiction over torts, except such as are maritime torts; that is, torts upon the high seas, or on waters within the ebb and flow of the tide." Since the case of the Genesee Chief, navigable waters may be substituted for tide waters. This view of the jurisdiction over maritime torts has not been denied.

But it has been strongly argued that this is a mixed case, the tort having been committed partly on water and partly on land; and that, as the origin of the wrong was on the water, in other words, as the wrong began on the water (where the admiralty possesses jurisdiction), it should draw after it all the consequences resulting from the act. These mixed cases, however, will be found, not cases of tort, but of contract, which do not depend altogether upon locality as the test of jurisdiction, such as contracts of material-men, for supplies, charter-parties, and the like. These cases depend upon the nature and subject-matter of the contract, whether a maritime contract, and the service a maritime service to be performed upon the sea, or other navigable waters, though made upon land. The cases of torts to be found in the admiralty, as belonging to this class, hardly partake of the character of mixed cases, or have, at most, but a very remote resemblance.*

They are cases of personal wrongs, which commenced on the land; such as improperly enticing a minor on board a ship and there exercising unlawful authority over him. The substance and consummation of the wrong were on board the vessel — on the high seas, or navigable waters — and the injury complete within admiralty cognizance. It was the tortious acts on board the vessel to which the jurisdiction attached.

This class of cases may well be referred to as illustrating the true meaning of the rule of locality in cases of marine torts, namely, that the wrong and injury complained of must have been committed wholly upon the high seas or navigable waters, or, at least, the substance and consummation of the same must have taken place upon these waters to be within the admiralty jurisdiction. In other words the cause of damage, in technical language, whatever else attended it, must have been there complete.

Much stress has been given to the fact, by the learned counsel who would support the jurisdiction, in his argument, that the vessel which communicated the fire to the wharf and buildings, was a maritime instrument, or agent, and, hence, characterized the nature of the tort. In other words, that this characterized it as a maritime tort, and, of course, of admiralty cognizance.

But this, we think, is a misapprehension. The owner of a vessel is liable for injuries done to third persons or property by the negligence or malfeasance of the master and crew while in the discharge of their duties and acting within the scope of their authority. It is upon this principle that the defendants are liable, if at all, to the libellants for the damages sustained. The circumstance that the agents were in the employment of the owners on board the vessel, and that the negligence occurred, while so employed, and which occasioned the damage, gives to the libellants the right of action. But, if they had been employed upon any other structure in the river — on a raft, or floating platform, for work, on the river, and the fire had been communicated to the wharf and buildings on account of their negligence while so engaged, the right of action would have been the same. The jurisdiction of the admiralty over maritime torts does not depend upon the wrong having been committed on board the vessel, but upon its having been committed upon the high seas or other navigable waters.

A trespass on board of a vessel, or by the vessel itself, above tide-water, when that was the limit of jurisdiction, was not of admiralty cognizance. The reason was, that it was not committed within the locality that gave the jurisdiction. The vessel itself was unimportant. The fact, therefore, of its having taken place on board the propeller Falcon, in the present case, is not an element that imparts any peculiar character to the nature of the tort complained of. This is so in cases of collision, in which the offending vessel may be attached and proceeded against as one of the remedies for the wrong done. The jurisdiction of the admiralty does not depend upon the fact that the injury was inflicted by the vessel, but upon the locality — the high seas, or navigable waters where it occurred. Every species of tort, however occurring, and whether on board a vessel or not, if upon the high seas or navigable waters, is of admiralty cognizance.

We can give, therefore, no particular weight or influence to the consideration that the injury in the present case originated from the negligence of the servants of the respondents on board of a vessel, except as evidence that it originated on navigable waters — the Chicago River; and, as we have seen, the simple fact that it originated there, but, the whole damage done upon land, the cause of action not being complete on navigable waters, affords no ground for the exercise of the admiralty jurisdiction. The negligence, of itself, furnishes no cause of action; it is damnum absque injuriâ. The case is not distinguishable from that of a person standing on a vessel, or on any other support in the river, and sending a rocket or torpedo into the city, by means of which buildings were set on fire and destroyed. That would be a direct act of trespass; but quite as efficient a cause of damage, as if the fire had proceeded from negligence. Could the admiralty take jurisdiction? We suppose the strongest advocate for this jurisdiction would hardly contend for it. Yet, the origin of the trespass is upon navigable waters, which are within its cognizance. The answer is, as already given: the whole, or at least the substantial cause of action, arising out of the wrong, must be complete within the locality upon which the jurisdiction depends — on the high seas or navigable waters.

The learned counsel, who argued this case for the appellants with great care and research, admitted that it was one of first impression; that he could find no case in the books like it. The reason is apparent, for it is outside the acknowledged limit of admiralty cognizance over marine torts, among which it has been sought to be classed. The remedy for the injury belongs to the courts of common law.



* 2 Sumner, 9.
* Thomas v. Lane, 2 Sumner, 2; The Huntress, per Ware, J., Davies, 85; United States v. Magill, 1 Washington C.C. 463; 4 Dallas, p. 345, 2d ed.; Plumer v. Webb, 4 Mason, 383-4; 1 Kent, 367* and n.


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