Blame it on MARY, 1975 Supreme Court Ruling

Lawrence Brennan, Captain, lawyer, professor tells the  history and significance of United States v. Reliable Transfer Co. aboard the MARY A. WHALEN, 2021

The MARY A. Whalen went aground on the Rockaways Christmas time, 1968. In the legal case that followed the US Supreme Court set a new standard for the consequences of maritime accidents.

The MARY A. Whalen went aground on the Rockaways in New York, shortly before Christmas 1968. The company who owned The MARY at the time,  Reliable Transfer Co., blamed the Coast Guard.  They argued that accident occured because one of the harbor lights that the Coast Guard was responsible for maintaining was out.  

The legal case 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.  US 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 case is summarized in a 2009 article from Professional Mariner.

The  Supreme Court decision "United States v. Reliable Transfer Co."   is  a significant case that is taught to all maritime law students. 

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, explained the history and significance of United States v. Reliable Transfer Co. aboard the MARY A. WHALEN in a June 10, 2021 virtual presentaion.  See the video on PortSide NewYork's youtube page.

Item Relations

Item: Charles Cushing, naval architect: Oral History is related to This Item
Item: The MARY A. WHALEN is related to This Item

Related Tour

Share this Item