For those of you who drive on beaches

Submitted: Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 18:33
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When Is a Roadway a Seaway?
The Case of Rumpelheimer v Haddock

Stare Decisis will appear from time to time to remind you that the law has its humorous side. This month's case is from AP Herbert's 'Misleading Cases' - originally published in the English magazine Punch.

This case involves difficult points of Marine and Traffic Law. The President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, giving judgment:


This action was originally instituted in the King's Bench; but Mr Justice Juice, holding that the issues disclosed pertained to the Law of Admiralty, although the ground of the claim was damage to a motor-car, the case was withdrawn from the King's Bench and referred to this Court.

Mr Rumpelheimer is suing Mr Haddock for negligent behaviour on the highroad, as a result of which his motorcar, a costly Botellini-Nine, was damaged. The dispute, as usual, is only nominally between the parties named, the real litigants being two insurance companies. If it were not for the insurance companies there would be very little litigation of any kind today, and members of the legal profession owe to them a debt we can repay only by careful labour and clear decisions.


On 21 March Mr Rumpelheimer was driving his motorcar along the thoroughfare known as Chiswick Mall, which runs beside the north bank of the River Thames.

Now, it appears that during the high spring tides, the waters of the Thames overflow the banks and cover the highway to a depth of from two feet on the river side of the road to a few inches on the landward side. Such was the condition of affairs a little before high water on the date in question, when Mr Rumpelheimer, who had an important business appointment in the City, began his voyage along the Mall. His evidence is that he was keeping carefully to the left or landward side of the road, where it was still possible to drive through the shallow water without fear of damage. While thus engaged he was startled to see coming towards him on the same side of the road, the defendant, Mr Haddock, who was navigating with a paddle a small boat of shallow draught. The plaintiff blew his horn vigorously, but the defendant held his course. Mr Rumpelheimer shouted courteously, 'Out of the road, you fool!' and Mr Haddock replied, as he admitted under cross-examination, 'Port to port, you foxy beetle! Are you not acquainted with the Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea? I am going to starboard.'

The plaintiff judged from this speech that he had to do with a maniac and, obeying an instinct of humanity which in the circumstances deserves all praise, he swerved to the right rather than collide with the defendant's flimsy craft. But this manoeuvre brought him into the deeper water, which penetrated to the delicate mechanism of his motor and caused it to stop.

More Evidence

It would not be profitable to dwell upon the exchange of views which followed. Although clearly expressed, they reflect small credit on the breeding and education of either party. Mr Rumpelheimer was compelled to remain where he was until the tide fell. (Mr Haddock, by the way, in gross breach of the customs of the sea, declined to convey him to the shore or pavement in his boat, on the ground that he feared a breach of the peace.) On the waters subsiding it was found that the car had been seriously damaged, and it had to be towed to the nearest garage. Mr Rumpelheimer was unable to keep his appointment, and as a result, he tells us, suffered pecuniary loss.

The evidence of Mr Haddock was most unsatisfactory, and if he thought that by singing snatches of sea-chanties he would commend himself to the Admiralty Court he was mistaken. Further, he has imported into the case a deplorable element of personal prejudice. He made certain comments on the personal appearance of the plaintiff he must have known can have no juridical significance. He said he had once or twice with resentment observed the plaintiff going about the neighbourhood in an opulent motorcar of foreign make, driving to the public danger, in excess of the statutory speed-limit, and to his (Mr Haddock's) inconvenience and alarm. He said that plaintiff seemed to think that he might be a law unto himself on the highroads, but that he (Mr Haddock) was blowed if he (Mr Rumpelheimer) was going to get away with it on the high seas as well. He had therefore acted as he did, willing to discomfit Mr Rumpelheimer, but believing that the law was on his side, that is to say, the regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea or in tidal waters.

The defendant is clearly one who insufficiently appreciates the value of the motorcar to the human race. But we must not allow our natural detestation for such an individual to cloud our judgement. The meanest citizen, impelled by the meanest motives, is entitled to insist upon the enforcement of the law. The question is, 'What is the law?' - a question which sometimes arises in our Courts and receives, sometimes, a satisfactory answer.

Law of the Land v Law of the Water

Now, the law or custom of the road is that when two vehicles meet, each shall keep to the left. But the law or custom of the sea is that when two vessels meet they shall go to starboard and pass port to port. That is, each shall keep to the right. Mr Haddock contends that when the tide covers the road that road becomes a part of the tideway, that traffic upon it is thenceforth governed by the regulations and customs of the sea, and that he did right, therefore, to steer so as to pass Mr Rumpelheimer on his port hand. Further, it is the duty of a steamvessel to keep out of the way of a rowing-boat; and Mr Haddock argues that the plaintiff's motor-car when navigating the tideway has the status of a steam-vessel, and that the plaintiff has nobody but himself to blame.

With considerable reluctance we find there is some substance in these contentions. The law of the land says one thing; the law of the water says the contrary; and it seems elementary that (upon navigable waters) the law of the water must prevail. It is idle to say that Chiswick Mall was not at the time of the accident navigable water. Mr Haddock was, in fact, navigating it, and if Mr Rumpelheimer chooses to navigate it at the same time he must be bound by the appropriate regulations and should make himself familiar with them. Mr Rumpelheimer makes the rather childish objection that his motorcar is not a vessel and ought not to be treated as such. I find no difficulty there. Recent developments of the internal-combustion engine, and in particular of the outboard motor, have produced a type of waterconveyance which in aspect and dignity is little more than a floating automobile; and though Mr Rumpelheimer's motor-car appears to be unseaworthy it is otherwise as much a boat as many motor-boats.

The point is, boat or not, it was navigating the tideway.

Again, it was argued for the plaintiff that, since the highroad was covered with water only by an exceptional inundation of short duration, it cannot be held to have lost the character of a highroad. But to accept this view would be to admit a very dangerous and confusing precedent. Suppose that large sections of our southern counties were covered for a long period by exceptional floods, so that the inhabitants were compelled to cross them regularly in steam or motor vessels, can it be doubted that the regulations of the water, as to the avoidance of collisions, the carrying of lights, sound signals in case of fog, and so forth, would be observed and enforced in that area? Yet in principle the two cases are the same; and differences of degree cannot be allowed to derogate from principle. The fact that a certain area of water was once dry land and is expected to be dry land again is unimportant. Much of what we now know as land was once covered by the ocean, and vice versa; but a motorist would not be allowed to appeal to the customs of the sea because he was crossing the Romney Marshes, on the ground that that land used to be sea. In the same way it is idle for the plaintiff to urge that Chiswick Mall used to be dry land. The question in every case must be a question of fact - was this area on the material date water or dry land? And neither geographical size nor extent of time is a relevant consideration.

We find in this case that the scene of the mishap was water, and tidal water. Now, tidal waters lead to the ocean and are navigated by the vessels of every maritime country. The regulations upon which Mr Haddock relies are not of British origin or sanction only; they govern the movements and secure the safety of the ships of the world. The nations rely upon each other to observe them faithfully and defend them jealously. It will be easily seen what international complications might ensue if it were to go forth that the Admiralty Court of Great Britain was prepared to play fast and loose with them for the benefit of a motorist, however small the issues at stake.

The defendant is no gentleman, but that is neither here nor there. We find for the defendant, much as we dislike him.

This will create a precedent obviously to those who drive on areas of beach that at high tide are covered with water...
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Reply By: Willem - Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 18:58

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 18:58
Mr Haddock....hahahahahaha

'This will create a precedent obviously to those who drive on areas of beach that at high tide are covered with water...' Or floodways?
AnswerID: 163929

Follow Up By: Des Lexic - Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 19:10

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 19:10
Mr. Willem, I can only advise you that in all cases of storm and tempest in Peterborough, you should keep HMS Nissan firmly secured in her berth in the shed.
FollowupID: 418727

Follow Up By: Willem - Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 19:26

Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 19:26
Hello Mr Lexic

Yes you are right.

BTW are you going on the big Pesty drive too?
FollowupID: 419011

Follow Up By: Des Lexic - Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 21:52

Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 21:52
G'day Willie,
Googs track is one that I have not yet accomplished. Sadly it will have to wait for another time.
Cheers for now
FollowupID: 419058

Reply By: Utemad - Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 19:06

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 19:06
That was very funny.

However as for this bit
"This will create a precedent obviously to those who drive on areas of beach that at high tide are covered with water..."

I can't see how. As regardless of the tide we don't drive where the boats go :-)

Although if you get bogged below the hide tide mark that might pose an issue. However then the boat would be hitting another 'vessel' while it was at anchor LOL
AnswerID: 163933

Follow Up By: Member - Jezza (NSW) - Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 22:15

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 22:15
Hi Uteman,

"I can't see how. As regardless of the tide we don't drive where the boats go :-) "

There might be one exception to this that could perceivably be a modern version of this incident.....

How about a 4WD scooting through the surf and an on-coming jet ski. Both would be deemed to be water vessels, hence law of the sea prevails?

Interesting thought - could cause some confusion!

FollowupID: 418804

Follow Up By: Pajman Pete (SA) - Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 06:44

Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 06:44
If you were bogged in the water on a beach frequented by boats you should also have one black ball hoisted during the day and a single all round light at night - vessel at anchor or aground. (If it was foggy you would also have to ring a bell at intervals not exceeding 2 minutes.)


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FollowupID: 418821

Follow Up By: Member - Jezza (NSW) - Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 07:26

Friday, Mar 31, 2006 at 07:26
Agreed. LOL

FollowupID: 418832

Reply By: Kiwi Kia - Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 20:40

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006 at 20:40
As soon as the water becomes deep enough to navigate then vessels have the right of way. As long as the beach is dry then vehicles have right of way. Now, if an aircraft should choose to land on that stretch of pristine sand........(same rules as ships).

Mr Dottrice played Mr Haddock (his daughter played the wife of Michael Crawford in the tv series "Some Mothers Do Have Em"), Alister Sim played the Judge but can't remember who played the crown prosecutor.

Mr Fawlty, are these 'Misleading Cases' available on dvd ? Great series.
AnswerID: 163964

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