Our ship MARY A. WHALEN is famous in maritime law. That’s because American admiralty law is a lot fairer thanks to a case involving the MARY A. WHALEN, the 1975 Supreme Court decision U.S. vs Reliable Transfer. As a nation, we can be thankful that parties responsible for major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill now have to pay for restoration because of the decision in this case involving the MARY A. WHALEN.
In short, damages used to be split 50/50, meaning there was no incentive for irresponsible parties to do better; and in the 1975 decision U.S. vs Reliable Transfer, the Supreme Court (finally) decided that blame should be proportional to fault. We say “finally” because the USA lagged some 130 years behind our major maritime trading partners in this, and the Supreme Court had been seeking a case to make this change. The decision also involved the famous judge Learned Hand.
The MARY’s involvement in this case is a key reason that “National Significance” was added to the MARY’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places on 12/8/2023. Read the research by our Historian/Curator Peter Rothenberg that substantiated the MARY’s national significance.
In detail: The MARY A. WHALEN went aground next to a Rockaways jetty in Queens, New York City, shortly before Christmas 1968. The company who owned The MARY at the time, Reliable Transfer Co., blamed the Coast Guard. They argued that the accident occurred because one of the harbor lights (aids to navigation) that the Coast Guard maintains was out. The Coast Guard argued that the ship captain made an error.
This matter was argued all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1975, the Court ruled that in marine accidents, damages should be apportioned according to blame. Sounds logical, but prior to this decision, damages were split 50/50 irrespective of fault. This meant that those largely to blame would not suffer the full financial consequences of their actions.
This 1975 decision overturned US maritime law in effect since 1854 and had the USA finally join maritime practice common in other nations. U.S. Courts had been struggling for decades to make this change, with the famous Judge Learned Hand dismissing US admiralty law on these cases as an "obstinate cleaving to the ancient rule which has been abrogated by nearly all civilized nations."
The Supreme Court decision "United States v. Reliable Transfer Co." is a significant case that is taught to all admiralty (maritime) law students.
The series of lawsuits leading to the SCOTUS decision is recapped in our application requesting the “National Significance” here.
The SCOTUS decision is summarized in a 2009 article from Professional Mariner.
Here is a series of articles about her running aground back in the day:
12/25/1968 Tugs fail to free tanker (New York Times)
12/26/1968 Crew’s Christmas Party Trapped in the Yule Tide (Newsday)
12/26/1968 Copter links grounded tanker to tug (New York Times)
12/27/1968 Tanker aground off Queens pulled free after 2 1/2 days (New York Times)
Lawrence Brennan, a captain, lawyer and professor at Fordham University, regularly lectures on RELIABLE TRANSFER and has often litigated the issues from the US Supreme Court decision. If fact, he worked at the US Department of Justice office that tried the case and handled the appeal. See the video on PortSide NewYork's YouTube page.
Follow this link for a curated compendium of MARY A. WHALEN stories