THE BELGENLAND, 114 U. S. 355 (1885)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Belgenland, 114 U.S. 355 (1885)

The Belgenland

Argued January 16, 1885

Decided April 13, 1885

114 U.S. 355


A collision on the high seas between vessels of different nationalities is prima facie a proper subject of inquiry in any court of admiralty which first obtains jurisdiction.

The Courts of the United States in admiralty may, in their discretion, take jurisdiction over a collision on the high seas between two foreign vessels.

Page 114 U. S. 356

Among the circumstances which may determine a court below in exercising its discretion to take or refuse jurisdiction over foreign vessels, their officers and crew in ports of the United States are:

(1) That both vessels are subject to the laws of the same country, and that resort may be had to its courts without difficulty.

(2) That the disputes are between seamen and the master, and that, in the absence of a treaty, the consul of the country does not assent to the jurisdiction (but this assent, in the absence of a treaty, is not necessary when the complaint is for arbitrary dismissal or acts of cruelty).

(3) When the jurisdiction is invoked for matters which affect only parties on the vessel, and which have to be determined by the laws of the country to which the vessel belongs.

When a controversy in admiralty between foreign vessels in the courts of the United States arises under the common law of nations, the court below should take jurisdiction unless special grounds are shown why it should not do so.

When the court below has taken jurisdiction in case of a collision between two foreign vessels on the high seas, it is incumbent on the party appealing to this Court, and questioning the jurisdiction, to show that the court below exercised its discretion to take jurisdiction on wrong principles, or acted so differently from the view held here, that it may justly be held to have exercised it wrongfully.

In a proceeding in admiralty against one foreign vessel for collision with another foreign vessel on the high seas, the general maritime law, as understood and administered in the courts of the country in which the litigation is prosecuted, is the law governing the case, except: (1) that persons on either ship will not be open to blame for following the sailing regulations and rules of navigation prescribed by their own government for their dereliction on the high seas, and (2) that if the maritime law, as administered by both nations to which the respective ships belong, be the same in both, in respect to any matter of liability or obligation, such law, if shown to the court, should be followed, although different from the maritime law of the country of the forum.

When facts found by the court below furnish conclusive proof of negligence, negligence may be regarded as among the conclusions of law to be legally inferred from those facts.

This case grew out of a collision which took place on the high seas between the Norwegian barque Luna and the Belgian steamship Belgenland, by which the former was run down and sunk. Part of the crew of the Luna, including the master, were rescued by the Belgenland and brought to Philadelphia. The master immediately libeled the steamship on behalf of the owners of the Luna and her cargo, and her surviving crew, in a cause civil and maritime.

Page 114 U. S. 357

The libel stated in substance that the bark Luna, of 359 tons, was on a voyage from Porto Rico to Queenstown or Falmouth with a cargo of sugar, and when in latitude 44�33', and longitude 21�43', was met by the steamship Belgenland, end on, between 1 and 2 in the morning, and was run down and sunk by her, only five of her crew escaping; that the light of the steamship was observed right ahead when a mile or more off; that the bark kept her course, as was her duty to do, and that the steamship took no measures to avoid her, but came on at full speed until she struck the Luna, and that the collision was altogether the fault of those in charge of the steamship.

The master of the Belgenland appeared for her owners and filed an answer denying that the Luna, at the time of the collision, was sailing on the course alleged, and averred that she was crossing the bows of the steamship, and must have changed her course, and that this was the cause of the collision, that the Luna was not discovered until the instant of the collision, when it was too late to alter the course of the steamship, and that the reason why the bark was not seen before, was that she was enveloped in a shower of rain and mist, and that the steamship was plunging into a heavy head sea, throwing water over her turtle deck forward.

The proctor for the Belgenland, at the time of filing his answer, excepted to the jurisdiction of the court and stated for cause that the alleged collision took place between foreign vessels on the high seas, and not within the jurisdiction of the United States; that the Belgenland was a Belgian vessel, belonging to the port of Antwerp, in the Kingdom of Belgium, running a regular line between Antwerp and the ports of New York and Philadelphia, and that the bark Luna was a Norwegian vessel, and that no American citizen was interested in the bark or her cargo.

The district court decided in favor of the libellant, and rendered a decree for the various parties interested, to the aggregate amount of $50,278.23. An appeal was taken to the circuit court, which found the following facts, to-wit:

"1. Between one and two o'clock on the morning of September 3,

Page 114 U. S. 358

1879, in mid-ocean, a collision occurred between the Norwegian bark Luna, on her voyage from Humacao, in Porto Rico, to Queenstown or Falmouth, and the steamship Belgenland, on a voyage from Antwerp to Philadelphia, which resulted in the sinking of the bark, in the total loss of the vessel and her cargo and in the drowning of five of her crew."

"2. The wind was between S.W. and W.S.W. and there was not much sea, but a heavy swell. The bark was running free, heading S.E. by E. half E., having the wind on her starboard quarter. All her square sails were set except her main royal, and she carried also her fore, main, and mizzen stay sails and inner jib. Her yards were braced a little, her main sheet was down, but the weather clew was up. She was making about seven and one half knots. Her watch on deck consisted of the first mate and three men; an able seaman was on the lookout on the top gallant forecastle, and a capable helmsman was at the wheel."

"She carried a red light on her port side and a green light on her starboard side, properly set and burning brightly, which could be seen, on a dark night, and with a clear atmosphere at least two miles. The character and location of these lights conformed to the regulations of the bark's nationality, which are the same as those of the British Board of Trade. About 1:45 o'clock the lookout sighted the white mast head light of a steamer right ahead, distant, as he thought, about a mile, and reported it at once to the mate, who cautioned the man at the wheel to 'keep her steady and be very careful,' and the bark held her course."

"No side lights on the steamer were seen from the bark, but, as the vessels approached each other, the white light of the steamer gradually drew a little on the port bow of the bark for three or four minutes. The mate of the bark seeing the steamer's sails, and that she was heading directly for the bark, was close aboard of her, and reasonably apprehending that a collision was inevitable, ordered the bark's helm hard a port. In a few seconds the steamer's starboard light came into view, and in another instant she struck the bark on her

Page 114 U. S. 359

port side, cutting her in two obliquely from the after part of her fore rigging to the fore part of the main rigging."

"3. The Belgenland was steering N.W. by W. half W. by compass, and making about eleven knots. Her second officer had charge of the deck, and his watch was composed of ten able seamen, two quartermasters, the second boatswain, and the fourth officer. One able seaman was stationed on the lee or starboard side of the bridge as a lookout. The second officer was on the bridge. The fourth officer was stationed at the after or standard compass, which was near the mizzen mast, but at the time was on the bridge, having come there to report a cast of the log. A quartermaster was at the wheel. The rest of the watch were underneath the turtle back or top gallant forecastle."

"The steamer was four hundred and sixteen feet long and about thirty eight feet beam. The bridge was one hundred and fifty or one hundred and eighty feet from her bow, and was six or seven feet higher than the top of the turtle back, which was about twenty five feet above the water."

"The steamer had her fore, main, and mizzen try sails, fore stay sails, and jib set and drawing, and probably her jigger also. She heeled to starboard from ten to fifteen degrees."

"4. The only lookout on the steamer was on the bridge. None was on the turtle back, although it would have been entirely safe to station one there, for the alleged reason that the vessel was plunging into a head sea, and taking so much water over her bows that he would have been of no use there."

"5. The bark was not seen by those in charge of the steamer until just at the instant of the collision, when the second officer saw her head sails just across the steamer's bow, and the lookout in the lee side of the bridge saw her after sails and stern."

"6. The moon was up, but was obscured by clouds. There was no fog, but occasional rain, with mist, and the wind was blowing from the S.W. to W.S.W."

"7. Objects could be seen at the distance of from five hundred yards to a mile. The mast head light of the steamer was sighted, and at once reported by the lookout on the bark at the distance of about a mile; the port light of the bark was

Page 114 U. S. 360

seen by a steerage passenger on the steamer, looking out of his room just under the bridge, and reported to his roommates long enough before the collision to enable the second steerage steward, who heard the report, to go up the companion ladder, cross the deck, and reach the steamer's rail; after the collision, the mizzen mast of the bark was all of her above water, and this was distinctly seen from the steamer when she was at the distance of five hundred yards from it."

"8. The damages caused by the collision were assessed at $50,248.23."

Upon these facts, the court below deduced the following conclusions:

"1. That the vessels were approaching each other from opposite directions, upon lines so close to each other as to involve the necessity of a deflection by one or the other of them to avoid a collision."

"2. That the lookout on the bark saw the steamer when she was nearly a mile distant, and she was held steadily on her course, and that she thereby fulfilled her legal obligation. Even if her helm was ported, it was at a time and under circumstances which did not involve any culpability on her part."

"3. That it was the duty of the steamer to keep out of the way of the bark, and, to that end, so to change her course as to preclude all danger of collision."

"4. That the bark could and ought to have been seen by the steamer when they were sufficiently distant from each other to enable the steamer to give the bark enough sea room to avert any risk of collision. In this failure to observe the bark the steamer was negligent."

"5. No satisfactory or sufficient reason is furnished by the respondents' evidence for this failure of observation. If it resulted from the inattention of the steamer's lookout or because their vision was intercepted by her fore try sail, she was clearly culpable. If it is explicable by the condition of the atmosphere, no matter by what cause it was produced, it was the steamer's duty to reduce her speed and to place a lookout on her turtle back. An omission to observe these precautions was negligence. "

Page 114 U. S. 361

But considering the proof that the bark held her course, and that the steamer might have seen her by proper vigilance, when suitable precaution against collision might have been taken, a mere speculative explanation of the steamer's presumptive culpability cannot be accepted as sufficient.

A decree was thereupon entered affirming the decree of the district court in favor of the libellants for the sum of $50,748.23, with interest from March 25, 1881, amounting to $51,954.14 and costs. A reargument was had on the question of jurisdiction, and the court held and decided that the admiralty courts of the United States have jurisdiction of collisions occurring on the high seas between vessels owned by foreigners of different nationalities and overruled the plea to the jurisdiction. The case is now before us on appeal from the decree of the circuit court.

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