Law School Case Brief
Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh - 53 U.S. (12 How.) 443 (1852)
It is the duty of every steamboat traversing waters where sailing vessels are often met with, to have a trustworthy and constant look-out besides the helmsman. It is impossible for him to steer the vessel and keep the proper watch in his wheel-house. His position is unfavorable to it, and he cannot safely leave the wheel to give notice when it becomes necessary to check suddenly the speed of the boat. And whenever a collision happens with a sailing vessel, and it appears that there was no other look-out on board the steamboat but the helmsman, or that such look-out was not stationed in a proper place, or not actually and vigilantly employed in his duty, it must be regarded as prima facie evidence that it was occasioned by her fault. She has command of her own course and her own speed; and it is her duty to pass the approaching vessel at such a distance as to avoid all danger where she has room; and if the water is narrow, her speed should be checked so as to accomplish the same purpose.
A schooner sunk after the propeller collided with it. Appellees, owner of the propeller, contended that the accident was caused by the carelessness and negligence of the propeller's master and crew. Appellees sought condemnation of the propeller and the payment of damages. Appellants did not deny the collision, but denied that the collision was the result of negligence or carelessness of its crew. The cause was tried before the district court, and a decree was entered in favor of appellees. The circuit court affirmed the district court's decree. The appellants challenged the decision.
Was the collision a result of the negligence or carelessness of the appellant’s crew, thereby justifying the decision in favor of appellees?
The Court found, from the evidence, that there was a great and inexcusable carelessness on the part of the propeller, and that the damages awarded were not higher than the loss. According to the Court, the propeller had command of her own course and speed and had a duty to avoid danger when passing other vessels. The fact that there was no look-out posted on deck with the helmsman was conclusive evidence of the carelessness of the propeller's crew. Therefore, the Court affirmed the decree of the circuit court.
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