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Law School Case Brief

Hewlett v. Barge Bertie - 418 F.2d 654 (4th Cir. 1969)


If the ship sinks and is beyond recovery, the damages are her value just before she sinks, plus interest thereon until payment. If she is not a complete loss and repossession or repairs are both physically and economically feasible, then the reasonable cost of recovery, including repairs and an allowance for deprivation of use, is the measure. But if the reclamation expense including repairs exceeds the ship's just value at the time of the casualty, or if repairs are not both physically and economically practicable, then it is a constructive total loss, and the limit of compensation is the value plus interest.


Barge BA-1401, afloat and made fast alongside a pier in the Elizabeth River at South Norfolk, Virginia, on September 28, 1960 was struck by Barge Bertie then in tow of tug Evelyn. Barge Bertie and tow were libeled by Latham B. Hewlett, owner of the BA-1401, for reimbursement of the injuries alleged to have been sustained by his barge. As claimant of the attached or arrested accused vessels, C. G. Willis Co., Inc., answered. Waiving the traverse in the answer, the respondents confessed negligence at trial and relied exclusively on absence of injury. The admiralty court only allowed libelant Hewlett "the sum of $1.00 by way of nominal damages" with costs. Libelant barge owner Hewlett appealed. 


In a maritime collision suit by a barge owner seeking damages for the barge's injuries while being towed by a tug, was the nominal sum of $1 for damages proper?




The United States Court of Appeals explained that when a ship's loss was not complete and repairs were physically practicable, the question remains whether they were economically so. The answer depended on whether the repair cost was more than the value of the barge. The Court found that libelant Hewlett showed a fair estimate for the repairs to be between $2895 and $3000. If this expense was beyond the fair and reasonable monetary value of the vessel to the owner, then the recovery will be limited to such value. The Court explained that when tortfeasors asserted that the value of the property was less than the cost of repairs, they had the burden to establish that fact. The  Court found that the tug owner failed to establish that the value of the barge was less than the cost of repairs. The Court held that the libelant barge owner was entitled to recover the cost of repairs. Accordingly, the Court vacated the order and remanded the case with a request to the district court to enter a decree awarding the barge owner damages in the amount of the cost of repair: $2895, with interest. 

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