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Case Basics
Docket No. 
United States
Reliable Transfer Co.
(for the United States pro hac vice)
(for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

It was long the rule in admiralty cases arising from collision or stranding that, when both parties were negligent, the sum of the damages to both should be split evenly between them. The Supreme Court endorsed this “rule of divided damages” in The Schooner Catharine v. Dickenson, 58 U.S. (17 How.) 170 (1855).

On a clear night, in 8-10 foot seas and 45 knots of wind off Rockaway Point, the Mary A. Whalen, a coastal tanker carrying fuel oil to New York from New Jersey, went astray. Unable to locate the breakwater light, her master attempted a U-turn, stranding her upon a sand bar. The light had failed. Its maintenance was the U.S. Coast Guard’s responsibility. The tanker’s owner sued in federal district court, which found negligence on the parts of both the vessel (75%) and the Coast Guard (25 %). Even though only the ship owner suffered damages, the district court applied the rule of divided damages, assessing both parties equal shares. They cross-appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed per curiam.

Abstract prepared by Professor J.P. Jones


Whether, in admiralty cases of collision and stranding, the rule of divided damages ought to be discarded in favor of comparative fault?

Decision: 9 votes for United States, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Suits in Admiralty Act

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Potter Stewart, the Court held that in such cases liability should be allocated with reference to the comparative degrees of fault on the part of each party. "We hold that when two or more parties have contributed by their fault to cause property damage in a maritime collision or stranding, liability for such damage is to be allocated among the parties proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault, and that liability for such damages is to be allocated equally only when the parties are equally at fault or when it is not possible fairly to measure the comparative degree of their fault."

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UNITED STATES v. RELIABLE TRANSFER CO.. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 30 July 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1974/1974_74_363>.
UNITED STATES v. RELIABLE TRANSFER CO., The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1974/1974_74_363 (last visited July 30, 2015).
"UNITED STATES v. RELIABLE TRANSFER CO.," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed July 30, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1974/1974_74_363.