The owner of a steamboat who hired a slave was liable only for gross negligence when the slave was killed.
The owner of the slave assumed the risk when he knew of defects existing on the steamboat.
Henry W. Taylor hired a male slave to Nathaniel F. Williams and Henry Hitchcock to work as a steward on the steamboat Little Erie. While working on board, the slave slipped and fell into the pit of the fly wheel, which was not sufficiently protected. At the trial in Mobile Circuit Court, several steamboat captains and pilots testified that, normally, slats were nailed across posts, or uprights in the frame, on each side of the fly wheel. Furthermore, they testified that it was "very unusual" to operate without them. The court charged the jury that Taylor had not been bound to investigate the situation on the board and that Williams and Hitchcock were liable if they had been negligent. The defendants asked the court to charge the jury that their negligence alone was insufficient: "it should also appear that there was no negligence on the part of the slave," as the law required slaves "to take reasonable care of themselves." The court refused this charge and Williams and Hitchcock appealed.
The Court's Decision
Judge Arthur F. Hopkins wrote the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court. He made a distinction between passengers who had purchased a ticket and those who had contracted to work on the boat. The latter assumed a greater responsibility for their own safety, so much so that gross negligence was required before the boat owner incurred any liability. This applied to masters who hired out slaves as well as free laborers. Consequently, the Circuit Court's charge to the jury had been faulty because it failed to specify gross negligence. Hopkins also noted that Williams and Hitchcock had not proven that Taylor knew of the defect when the slave was hired, a fact which could influence the outcome of a new trial.
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