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3 Ocean L. Memo 1 (1976)

handle is hein.journals/ocoaslme3 and id is 1 raw text is: 

Ocean Law Memo
                                                       February 17, 197f

Vol. 3, No. 1

DAMAGES        IN    MARITIME        COLLISIONS           &  GRO   UNDINGS

                  The United States v. Reliable Transfer Co. Inc.

The Eoual Division of Damages Rule.

   The U.S. Supreme Court in 1854 adopted the rule
that in a maritime collision the aggregate damages
suffered must be divided equally among vessels
found to be at fault.  The U.S. Supreme Court ex-
plained this rule, called the Equal Division of
Damages Rule, (or moiety ) in The Sapphire:

         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. But this rule is applicable only
   where it appears that both vessels have been
   injured.  If one in fault has sustained no in-
   jury, it is liable for half the damages
   sustained by the other, though that other was
   also in fault.

   The rule at the time that it was adopted was
thought to produce a just and equitable alloca-
tion of damages.  It was also thought to be the
best rule to promote safety and caution in navi-

   The rule of equal division of damages has
received a great deal of criticism from the courts
and from legal scholars.  Nevertheless, the rule
continued to govern maritime collisions for more
than a century.  It should be noted that this rule
applied to damages arising from rammings or
groundings caused by embarrassment of navigation
as well as collisions.  Then, on May 19th, 1975,
the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of The United
States v. Reliable Transfer Co. Inc. overturned
the equal division of damages rule and held
damages will be apportioned on the basis of the
degree of fault of each vessel.

How Did The Case Arise?

         On a clear but windy December night in
   1968, the Mary A. Whalen, a coastal tanker
   owned by the . . . Reliable Transfer Company,
   embarked from Constable Hook, New Jersey, for
   Island Park, New York, with a load of fuel oil.
   The voyage ended, instead, with the vessel
   stranded on a sand bar off Rockaway Point out-
   side New York Harbor
         The Whalen's course led across the mouth
   of the Rockaway Inlet, a narrow body of water
   that lies between a breakwater to the south-
   east 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. 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 degree 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
   degree turn eastwardly, he believed  that the ves-
   sel was then south of the breakwater and that he
   was heading her for the open sea.  He was wrong.
   About a minute later the light structure on the
   southernmost point of the breakwater came into
   view.  Turning to avoid the rocks visible ahead,
   the Whalen ran aground in the sand.

   Reliable Transfer Company then filed an action
against the United States under the Suits in
Admiralty Act and the Federal Torts Claims Act, for
the damages sustained by the Whalen. The District
Court found the Whalen responsible for 75% of the
fault contributing to the grounding, and the Coast
Guard in failing to carry out it's duty to maintain
aids to navigation 25% at fault.  The court felt
that the Whalen's captain failed to use the caution
necessary to resolve the situation safely:

         Equipped with look-out, chart, search-
   light, radio-telephone, and radar, he made use of
   nothing except his own guesswork judgment.
   After . . . turning in a loop towards the north as
   to pass astern of the tow, he should have made
   sure of his position before setting his new 730
   (degree) course.  The fact that a northwest gale
   blowing at 45 knots with eight to ten foot
   seas made it difficult to see, emphasizes the
   need for caution rather than excusing a turn
   into the unknown...

   The court went on to say that even though it
believed the Coast Guard to be only 25% at fault,
the established rule of equal division of damages
required each party to bear one-half of the loss.

   This rqling was appealed to the. U.S. Court of
 Appeals for the Second Circuit (N.Y., Conn., & Ver.).
 The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's
 holding.  It held that the District Court was not
 in error in its determination of the relative fault
 of each party. The court also commented on the un-
 fairness of the equal division of damages rule, but
 held that it must adhere to it. Any change in the
 rule must come from either the U.S. Supreme Court

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