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U.S. Supreme Court

Panama Railroad Co. v. Napier Shipping Co., 166 U.S. 280 (1897)

Panama Railroad Company v. Napier Shipping Company

No. 102

Argued January 26, 1897

Decided March 22, 1897

166 U.S. 280


The libel in this case was dismissed by the trial court. The judgment of that court was reversed by the court of appeals, and the case was remanded for assessment of damages. After assessment and decree, it was again taken to the court of appeals, where the decree of assessment was affirmed, whereupon a writ of certiorari from this Court was granted. Held that upon such writ the entire case was before this Court for examination.

Page 166 U. S. 281

Torts originating within the waters of a foreign power may be the subjects of a suit in a domestic court.

The facts in this case, as detailed in the statement below, do not show a negligence on the part of the railroad company and its agents which makes it responsible to the shipping company for the damage caused by the accident to the Stroma.

This was a libel in personam, filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, to recover damages sustained by the libelant through injuries received by its steamer The Stroma, while lying at the respondent's pier in the port of Colon.

The undisputed facts of the case were substantially as follows: the libelant was a British corporation and owner of the steamer Stroma, and the respondent a New York corporation, and the proprietor of certain piers known as piers No. 1 and 2 at Colon, in the Isthmus of Panama, and of a slip between those piers. These piers it was accustomed to let to vessels desiring to use the same, and to charge wharfage therefor. Between the piers, which were parallel to each other was a slip about 135 feet wide in which there was water to a depth of about 20 feet at the bulkhead, to 30 feet at the end of the pier. Pier No. 2 was about 450 feet in length, covered with a shed, in the sides of which were doors at intervals for the transfer of cargo to and from vessels lying at the pier.

For a few weeks prior to the arrival of the Stroma, respondent had been engaged in dredging the slip, and for this purpose had employed a steam dredge 60 feet long by 30 feet wide, consisting of a shallow scow, upon which were a steam boiler, a crane operated by machinery, and used for hoisting the refuse from the bottom of the slip, and a spindle about nine feet long, located in the middle of the forward end of the scow, constituting the pivot of the crane. On December 6, 1888, while the dredge was anchored in the slip between the piers, the port was visited by a storm known as a "norther," which was so violent that the vessel foundered and sank in the slip. Respondent secured a wrecking vessel and diver to raise the dredge and to remove it from the slip, operations

Page 166 U. S. 282

for which were begun December 15. The diver located the dredge as lying diagonally across the slip, the corner of the dredge being about 22 feet from pier No. 2, but, owing to the turbidness of the water, he did not discover the spindle. He also found the crane and boiler detached from the dredge, and lying upon the other side, towards pier No. 1. He marked the dredge and detached machinery with buoys, located at the end of the crane at the platform at the boiler, and at the two ends of the dredge -- five buoys in all. Besides the buoys, the wrecking boat itself was secured in the slip near the wreck, the head in, and the stern towards the sea, with two lines running across to each pier.

The Stroma arrived in Colon about eight o'clock in the morning of December 31, drawing 11 feet forward and 13 feet aft, and, as she approached the piers, her consignee raised a flag at the end of pier No. 2 to indicate the berth she was to occupy. There was a shed on the pier, and, in order to avail herself of the openings in the shed in the discharge of her cargo, the Stroma adjusted herself accordingly. She lay at the pier during the day, discharging her cargo, and was there seen and visited by agents of the respondent. At about six o'clock in the evening, it was reported that there was something wrong in the engine room, and, upon the engineer's going down, he heard a rush of water coming into the ship. An investigation disclosed a hole in the bilge of the ship's bottom on the starboard side, punctured by what was afterwards discovered to be the spindle rising from the deck of the sunken dredge. The deck of the dredge was 15 feet under water; the spindle over 7 feet in height, and about 9 inches in diameter. The vessel continued to fill with water, and sank. Fifteen days later, she was raised, temporarily repaired, and then brought to New York, where full repairs were made. A considerable portion of her cargo was ruined, and other portions damaged.

Upon a hearing in the district court, the libel was dismissed, 42 F.9d 2, and upon appeal to the circuit court (in which court the appeal was pending when the act establishing the court of appeals was passed), the decree of

Page 166 U. S. 283

the district court was affirmed pro forma, and an appeal taken to the circuit court of appeals, which reversed the decrees of the district and circuit courts, 50 F.5d 7, and remanded the cause to the circuit court for an ascertainment of damages, which were subsequently assessed in the circuit court, and a final decree rendered for $38,861.86. A second appeal was taken to the circuit court of appeals, which on April 19, 1894, affirmed the decree of the circuit court, and 61 F.4d 8, whereupon respondent was granted a writ of certiorari from this Court.

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