No. 310.

135 U.S. 599 (1890)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 19, 1890.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. W. Hallett Phillips and Mr. George W. Guthrie for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. J.G. Bigelow for Braithwaite, claimant.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the court.

Circuit Courts, in deciding causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction on the instance side of the court, are required to find the facts and the conclusions of law upon which their judgments and decrees are rendered, stating them separately; and we are limited, in reviewing such judgments and decrees, to a determination of the questions of law arising upon the record, and to such rulings of the court, excepted to at the time, as may be presented by a bill of exceptions, prepared as in actions at law. 18 Stat. 315; The Gazelle, 128 U.S. 474, 484. And this judgment of the Supreme Court of Dakota Territory is subject to review in the same manner and under the same regulations. Rev. Stat. § 702.

By the purchase of the steamer on the 18th of February, 1880, under the agreement dated the fourth day of that month, Braithwaite and Biggert acquired the legal title to be held in trust for the payment to the "parties of the second part," Cadman & Co., Robinson, Rea & Co., and Kay, McKnight & Co., of their claims as creditors and their advances to assist Braithwaite and Biggert to make the purchase.

When this was accomplished, Braithwaite and Biggert were to remain equal owners of the boat freed from the encumbrance. Joseph McC. Biggert seems to have been substituted for John D. Biggert, but as our conclusion is reached without regard to that circumstance, they will be treated as one. The agreement provided that the steamer was to be commanded by Braithwaite, and she was accordingly run by him during the navigation season of 1880, and earned eight thousand dollars, which went into the hands of Biggert, who was financial agent under the agreement, but this money had not been apportioned and distributed when the libel was filed.

On the 2d of February, 1881, Braithwaite and Biggert, the trustees, and Robinson, Rea & Co., Cadman & Co. and Kay, McKnight & Co., the creditors, by a written memorandum signed at Pittsburgh, appointed Rea, Biggert and Kay a committee to effect the sale of the steamer, with power to accept any offer of not less than eleven thousand five hundred dollars cash, or the equivalent in approved paper. At this time the steamer was lying in the Missouri River, a little below Fort Benton; but it appears from the interveners' petition, that on or about April 1 she had been released from the ice in which she had wintered, and been brought down to Bismarck by her master, Braithwaite. The court found that the committee made a conditional agreement with Leighton's agent to sell the steamer for eleven thousand five hundred dollars, if she should not be damaged to exceed five hundred dollars; that a bill of sale was made by libellants April 1, 1881, transferring the boat to the interveners, but it was not delivered or any money paid thereon; that Braithwaite refused to sign it and notified the interveners and the committee that his interest was not for sale, after which the interveners paid the sum of two thousand five hundred dollars; that Braithwaite was the owner of one-half interest in the steamer when the action was commenced; and that eight hundred dollars was due to him for wages under the written agreement with the libellants, no part of which had been paid or tendered to him by any of the parties.

The memorandum of February 2d was obviously entered into in view of the situation of the Eclipse as she lay locked up in the ice just below Fort Benton, and not as she was when safe in the port of Bismarck, and the authority vested in the committee to effect a sale was limited to the acceptance of an offer of not less than a certain amount in cash or its equivalent. A contract for a sale conditioned on how much the vessel might turn out to have been damaged by her environment and extrication therefrom was not within the power conferred, which contemplated only a sale for a sum certain at the risk of the buyer, and did not embrace an executory contract dependent on a contingency. We are of opinion, upon the facts found, that nothing had been done which operated to divest the legal title, and that when the libel was filed that title was in Braithwaite and Biggert, and the interest of the interveners and of Biggert's co-libellants was equitable merely. Braithwaite was the legal owner of one-half and was the master in possession. Of that possession he could not be deprived on the ground set up in the libel, that the libellants were a majority of the owners, for such was not the fact; and, moreover, he was not only part owner and master, but by the written agreement, which was still subsisting, was entitled to such possession as master, and therefore not liable to removal under section 4250 of the Revised Statutes, which provides that "any person or body corporate having more than one-half ownership of any vessel shall have the same power to remove a master, who is also part owner of such vessel, as such majority owners have to remove a master not an owner," but that the section shall not apply "where there is a valid written agreement subsisting, by virtue of which such master would be entitled to possession."

So far as the creditors and interveners were concerned, if the former desired to wind up the trust, or the latter to enforce an alleged contract of sale, which is indeed what is asked by this intervention, they should have resorted to a different tribunal. While the court of admiralty exercises its jurisdiction upon equitable principles, it has not the characteristic powers of a court of equity. It cannot entertain a bill or libel for specific performance, or to correct a mistake, Andrews v. Essex Ins. Co., 3 Mason, 6, 16; or declare or enforce a trust or an equitable title, Ward v. Thompson, 22 How. 330; The Amelia, 6 Ben. 475; Kellum v. Emerson, 2 Curtis, 79; or exercise jurisdiction in matters of account merely, Grant v. Poillon, 20 How. 162; Minturn v. Maynard, 17 How. 477; The Ocean Belle, 6 Ben. 253; or decree the sale of a ship for an unpaid mortgage, or declare her to be the property of the mortgagees and direct possession of her to be given to them. Bogart v. The John Jay, 17 How. 399. The jurisdiction embraces all maritime contracts, torts, injuries or offences, and it depends, in cases of contract, upon the nature of the contract, and is limited to contracts, claims and services purely maritime, and touching rights and duties appertaining to commerce and navigation. People's Ferry Co. v. Beers, 20 How. 393, 401. There was nothing maritime about the claims of the interveners, and the intervention was properly dismissed for want of jurisdiction over the subject matter.

The opinion of the Supreme Court of Dakota by Church, J., will be found reported in 30 N.W. Rep. 159, and deals with the facts in more detail than we have been at liberty to do.

We agree with the results arrived at by that court and its judgment is therefore Affirmed.


1. The docket title of this case is William Rea and Geo. F. Robinson, Copartners as Robinson, Rea & Co.; J.C. Kay and Woodruff McKnight, Copartners as Kay, McKnight & Co.; A.W. Cadman and ____ Cadman, Copartners as A.W. Cadman & Co.; Joseph McC. Biggert; and Joseph Leighton and Walter B. Jordan, Copartners as Leighton & Jordan, Appellants v. The Steamer "Eclipse," William Braithwaite, Claimant.


1000 Characters Remaining reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

User Comments

Listed below are the cases that are cited in this Featured Case. Click the citation to see the full text of the cited case. Citations are also linked in the body of the Featured Case.

Cited Cases

  • No Cases Found

Listed below are those cases in which this Featured Case is cited. Click on the case name to see the full text of the citing case.

Citing Cases