MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.
More than a century ago, in The Schooner Catharine v. Dickinson, 17 How. 170, this Court established in our admiralty law the rule of divided damages. That rule, most commonly applied in cases of collision between two vessels, requires the equal division of property damage whenever both parties are found to be guilty of contributing fault, whatever the relative degree of their fault may have been. The courts of every major maritime
On a clear but windy December night in 1968, the Mary A. Whalen, a coastal tanker owned by the respondent Reliable Transfer Co., embarked from Constable Hook, N. J., for Island Park, N. Y., with a load of fuel oil. The voyage ended, instead, with the vessel stranded on a sand bar off Rockaway Point outside New York Harbor.
The Whalen's course led across the mouth of Rockaway Inlet, a narrow body of water that lies between a breakwater to the southeast and the shoreline of Coney Island to the northwest. The breakwater is ordinarily marked at its southernmost point by a flashing light maintained by the Coast Guard. As, however, the Whalen's captain and a deckhand observed while the vessel was proceeding southwardly across the inlet, the light was not operating that night. As the Whalen approached Rockaway Point about half an hour later, her captain attempted to pass a tug with a barge in tow ahead, but, after determining that he could not overtake them, decided to make a 180° turn to pass astern of the barge. At this time the tide was at flood, and the waves, whipped by northwest winds of gale force, were eight to ten feet high. After making the 180° turn and passing astern of the barge, the captain headed the Whalen eastwardly, believing that the vessel was then
The respondent brought this action against the United States in Federal District Court, under the Suits in Admiralty Act, 41 Stat. 525, 46 U. S. C. § 741 et seq., and the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U. S. C. § 1346 et seq., seeking to recover for damages to the Whalen caused by the stranding. The District Court found that the vessel's grounding was caused 25% by the failure of the Coast Guard to maintain the breakwater light and 75% by the fault of the Whalen. In so finding on the issue of comparative fault, the court stated:
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed this judgment. 497 F.2d 1036. It held that the trial court "was not clearly erroneous in finding that the negligence of both parties, in the proportions stated, caused the stranding." Id., at 1037-1038. And, although "mindful of the criticism of the equal division of damages rule and . . . recogniz[ing] the force of the argument
We granted certiorari, 419 U.S. 1018, to consider the continued validity of the divided damages rule.
The precise origins of the divided damages rule are shrouded in the mists of history.
It was against this background that in 1855 this Court adopted the rule of equal division of damages in The Schooner Catharine v. Dickinson, 17 How. 170. The rule was adopted because it was then the prevailing rule in England, because it had become the majority rule in the lower federal courts, and because it seemed the "most just and equitable, and . . . best [tended] to induce
It was true at the time of The Catharine that the divided damages rule was well entrenched in English law. The rule was an ancient form of rough justice, a means of apportioning damages where it was difficult to measure which party was more at fault. See 4 R. Marsden, British Shipping Laws, Collisions at Sea §§ 119-147 (11th ed. 1961); Staring, Contribution and Division of Damages in Admiralty and Maritime Cases, 45 Calif. L. Rev. 304, 305-310 (1957). But England has long since abandoned the rule
While the lower federal courts originally adhered to the divided damages rule, they have more recently followed it only grudgingly, terming it "unfair,"
It is no longer apparent, if it ever was, that this Solomonic division of damages serves to achieve even rough justice.
And the potential unfairness of the division is magnified by the application of the rule of The Pennsylvania,
The Court has long implicitly recognized the patent harshness of an equal division of damages in the face of disparate blame by applying the "major-minor" fault doctrine to find a grossly negligent party solely at fault.
The divided damages rule has been said to be justified by the difficulty of determining comparative degrees of negligence when both parties are concededly guilty of contributing fault. The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 12. Although there is some force in this argument, it cannot justify an equal division of damages in every case of collision based on mutual fault. When it is impossible fairly to allocate degrees of fault, the division of damages equally between wrongdoing parties is an equitable solution. But the rule is unnecessarily crude and inequitable in a case like this one where an allocation of disparate proportional fault has been made. Potential problems of proof in some cases hardly require adherence to an archaic and unfair rule in all cases. Every other major maritime nation has evidently been able to apply a rule of comparative negligence without serious problems, see Mole & Wilson, A Study of Comparative Negligence, 17 Corn. L. Q. 333, 346 (1932); In re Adams' Petition, 125 F.Supp. 110, 114 (SDNY), aff'd, 237 F.2d 884 (CA2), and in our own admiralty law a rule of comparative negligence has long been applied with no untoward difficulties in personal injury actions. See, e. g., Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 409. See also Merchant Marine (Jones) Act, 38 Stat. 1185, as amended, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U. S. C. § 688; Death on the High Seas Act, 41 Stat. 537, 46 U. S. C. § 766.
The argument has also been made that the divided damages rule promotes out-of-court settlements, because when it becomes apparent that both vessels are at fault,
The rule of divided damages in admiralty has continued to prevail in this country by sheer inertia rather than by reason of any intrinsic merit. The reasons that originally led to the Court's adoption of the rule have long since disappeared. The rule has been repeatedly criticized by experienced federal judges who have correctly
We hold that when two or more parties have contributed by their fault to cause property damage in a maritime collision or stranding, liability for such damage is to be allocated among the parties proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault, and that liability for such damages is to be allocated equally only when the parties are equally at fault or when it is not possible fairly to measure the comparative degree of their fault.
Accordingly, the judgment before us is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
"It is undoubtedly the rule in admiralty that where both vessels are in fault the sums representing the damage sustained by each must be added together and the aggregate divided between the two. This is in effect deducting the lesser from the greater and dividing the remainder. . . . If one in fault has sustained no injury, it is liable for half the damages sustained by the other, though that other was also in fault."
Similarly, in The North Star, 106 U.S. 17, 22, the rule was thus stated:
"[A]ccording to the general maritime law, in cases of collision occurring by the fault of both parties, the entire damage to both ships is added together in one common mass and equally divided between them, and thereupon arises a liability of one party to pay to the other such sum as is necessary to equalize the burden."
It has long been settled that the divided damages rule applies not only in cases of collision between two vessels, but also in cases like this one where a vessel partly at fault is damaged in collision or grounding because of the mutual contributing fault of a nonvessel party. Atlee v. Packet Co., 21 Wall. 389 (barge struck pier because of mutual fault of barge and of pier owner); White Oak Transportation Co. v. Boston, Cape Cod & New York Canal Co., supra (steamship ran aground in canal because of joint negligence of steamship and canal company). See also G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty § 7-17, pp. 522-523 (2d ed. 1975).
Other maritime nations enacted provisions similar to Article XIV during the same period, with slight variations in the scope of the rule and the principle of division. Marsden, supra, §§ 119-125. "The principle . . . underlying the rule seems to have been that collision was a peril of the sea—a common misfortune to be borne by all parties, either equally or rateably according to their interests at risk." Id., § 140.
"Where fault on the part of one vessel is established by uncontradicted testimony, and such fault is, of itself, sufficient to account for the disaster, it is not enough for such vessel to raise a doubt with regard to the management of the other vessel. There is some presumption at least adverse to its claim, and any reasonable doubt with regard to the propriety of the conduct of such other vessel should be resolved in its favor."