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U.S. Supreme Court

Steamboat Company v. Chase, 83 U.S. 16 Wall. 522 522 (1872)

Steamboat Company v. Chase

83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 522


A statute of a state giving to the next of kin of a person crossing upon one of its public highways with reasonable care, and killed by a common carrier by means of steamboats an action on the case for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person does not interfere with the admiralty jurisdiction of the district courts of the United States, as conferred by the Constitution and the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789, and this is so even though no such remedy enforceable through the admiralty existed when the said act was passed, or has existed since.

A statute of the state just named, [Footnote 1] passed in October, 1853, and relating to common carriers by means of steamboats, enacts:

"SECTION 16. If the life of any person crossing upon a public highway with reasonable care, shall be lost by reason of the negligence or carelessness of such common carriers, or by the unfitness or negligence or carelessness of their servants or agents in this state, such common carriers shall be liable to damages for the injury caused by the loss of life of such person, to be recovered by action on the case, for the benefit of the husband or widow and next of kin of the deceased person."

"SECTION 21. In all cases in which the death of any persons ensues from injury inflicted by the wrongful act of another, and in which an action for damages might have been maintained at the common law had death not ensued, the person inflicting such injury shall be liable to an action for damages for the injury caused by the death of such person, to be recovered by

Page 83 U. S. 523

action on the case for the use of his or her husband, widow, children, or next of kin,"


These statutory provisions being in force in Rhode Island, but no such right enforceable through the admiralty having been given by Congress, a steamer owned by the American Steamboat Company, common carriers upon Narraganset Bay (a public highway, and tidal waters running between Providence and Newport, both within Rhode Island), negligently ran over one George Cook crossing upon that bay with reasonable care in a sailboat, and killed him. Thereupon Chase, administrator of Cook, brought suit against the steamboat company in one of the state courts of Rhode Island. The company set up that the court had not jurisdiction of the cause of action on the ground that under the Constitution of the United States -- which ordains that

"The judicial power of the United States shall extend to ALL cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,"

and under the ninth section of the Judiciary Act approved September 24, 1789, which section says that

"The district courts shall have exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common law remedy when the common law is adequate to give it,"

exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was vested in the district courts; that the courts of common law had only such jurisdiction of marine torts as was conferred by the saving clause in the ninth section of the act, and that actions for damages for loss of life did not come within the clause.

The court, however, sustained the jurisdiction, and verdict and judgment having been given for the plaintiff in $12,000, and the supreme court of the state having affirmed that judgment, the cause was removed to this Court.

Page 83 U. S. 529

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