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April 4, 1968


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Austin, District Judge.


On June 13, 1964, William Dibble was attempting to enter the harbor at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in his boat when he collided with the breakwater protecting the harbor. He and his wife, the only other person in the boat at the time, instituted this suit against the Government, claiming that one of the navigation lights in the harbor was negligently maintained and that its improper operation caused the accident. The Government's counterclaim for $943.00 worth of hospital services was dismissed.

Both pairs of flashing lights are of the same color: a red one on the right on entering the harbor and a white one on the left. There are, however, significant differences between the breakwater and pier lights. The breakwater lights flash once every 4 seconds and are 45 feet above the water. The pier lights flash once every 2.5 seconds and are 15 feet above the water. The breakwater lights are further south and are 1600 feet further into the lake than the pier lights.

The range lights are the most important navigation lights in the harbor. A yachtsman entering the harbor can determine if he is on a safe course merely by looking for the range lights. If he sees the front one directly below the rear one, he knows his boat will pass safely through the breakwater entrance. Range lights such as these mark highways through dangerous waters and, as one expert stated, are a blessing to the boat operator.

The breakwater itself is composed of three arms: the north and south arms extend away from shore for a distance of 1600 feet; the east arm runs parallel to shore in a north-south direction and is connected to the north arm. The entrance is at the southeast corner of the harbor between the east and south arms of the breakwater.

The Dibbles' ill-fated voyage commenced at about 1:00 P.M. at Monroe Street Harbor in Chicago. There they met four guests and the group boarded Dibble's boat, a 30-foot cabin cruiser. The plan was to go north from Chicago, making a few stops, to have dinner at Waukegan and, finally, to leave the boat at Great Lakes where Dibble had mooring privileges. One of the guests, apparently a yachtsman of some experience, had been invited for the admitted purpose of assisting Dibble in boat handling and advising him of the nature of harbors with which Dibble was unfamiliar.

After a few drinks at Monroe Street, the group departed Chicago. The first stop was Wilmette Harbor where the group had a few more drinks. There was a brief stop at Great Lakes late in the afternoon and then the Dibbles and their guests went to Waukegan where they had a drink or two in the Yacht Club. They went to Mathon's Restaurant, had a drink, and ordered dinner. Then, the group activities came to an abrupt end. There was some sort of disagreement and the Dibbles' yachtsman guest left without eating as did the Dibbles shortly thereafter. Only the three remaining guests stayed to eat.

It was a clear, dark night. Dibble navigated out of Waukegan Harbor and headed due south on a course of 180 degrees. He was about a mile and a half from shore. He saw the lights of the Naval Station on his right and one pair of flashing red and white navigation lights. He came due west to a course of 270 degrees and headed towards the pair of lights. He was travelling at a speed of about 15 miles per hour when he collided with the east arm of the breakwater. The point of impact was about 900 feet north of the red flashing breakwater light.

Plaintiffs have attempted to prove that the white breakwater light was burning steadily and not flashing at the time of the accident. There is no direct evidence supporting this contention. On occasion, between March and June, the light did burn steadily. On three of these occasions the light was repaired by the Coast Guard and apparently operated properly for some time. On a few other occasions, the condition would correct itself. On the night of the accident, the light was seen burning steadily by one witness at sunset and by another at about 11:30 P.M. The accident occurred at about 9:30 P.M. The light was seen operating properly by the Coast Guard station at Waukegan shortly after midnight. It is important to note that all witnesses state that the malfunction of the light was a readily noticeable condition. There were several people in the area between sunset and 11:30 P.M. that day and no one noticed the light malfunctioning at any other time.

Plaintiffs also claim that the Government was negligent in maintaining the light. The only evidence as to maintenance of the light is that the Coast Guard personnel charged with such responsibility came down from Waukegan and effectively repaired the light within a reasonable time after every report of its malfunction.

Plaintiffs claim that the steady burning of the white breakwater light would mislead a navigator into heading towards the flashing pier lights, thereby causing a collision with the breakwater. However, there was much expert testimony to the contrary. Plaintiffs' own expert stated that on a safe approach to the harbor a boat operator should be able to see all six navigation lights and that if he doesn't he should stop immediately. Other experts emphasized the importance of the range lights and that prudence would require a navigator to make no approach to the harbor until he could see the range lights and had them lined up properly. Experts also testified that a prudent navigator, even on the darkest night, should know the location of charted obstructions and should be able to avoid them.

Findings of Fact

1. I find that the United States Coast Guard had undertaken to maintain the Great ...

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