Little v. Barreme Case Brief

Why is the case important?

A Danish vessel, The Flying Fish, with neutral Danish property on board was seized by the United States frigate Boston, commanded by Captain Little (Little), and brought into the port of Boston and libeled as an American vessel that had violated the non-intercourse law.

Facts of the case

The USS Boston captured the Danish ship the Flying-Fish , which was then held in the Port of Boston. The Flying-Fish , which had left the French-controlled Haitian port of Jeremie, was suspected of being an American ship in violation of the United States’ embargo on France. In the embargoes, the President was given the power to instruct the Navy to stop any American ships suspected to be en route to a French port. President John Adams, meanwhile, had issued a letter to the Secretary of the Navy to stop all American ships and ships suspected of being American travelling both to and from French-controlled ports. The federal district court judge freed the Flying-Fish , but did not award damages for its illegal capture. The United States Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that George Little, the captain of the Boston should pay damages.


Is an officer who obeys orders liable for damages sustained by a misconstruction of an act, or will his orders excuse him?


Affirmed the circuit court, with costs. The fact that Captain Little was following orders did not change the nature of the transaction, or legalize his action which without those orders would have been a plain trespass. Little was must liable to the owner of the Flying Fish for damages. Dissent. None. Concurrence. None.


“The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment below. A commander of a ship of war of the United States, in obeying his instructions from the President of the United States, would act at his peril. If those instructions were not strictly warranted by law, he was answerable in damages to any person injured by their execution. The Court noted that the act pursuant to which the captain seized the vessel did not authorize the seizure upon the high seas of any vessel sailing from a French port

  • and orders of the President of the United States could not justify such a seizure. Hence, the Court determined that Captain Little must be answerable in damages to the owner of the vessel.”
    • Case Brief: 1804
    • Petitioner: George Little
    • Respondent: Barreme
    • Decided by: Marshall Court

    • Citation: 6 US 170 (1804)
      Argued: Dec 17, 1801
    • Dec 19, 1801
      Decided: Feb 27, 1804″