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Structures erected on the margin of Navigable Waters where vessels can stop to load and unload cargo.

Cities located on lakes, rivers, and oceans usually have at least one wharf, where ships can deliver and pick up passengers and load and unload various types of goods. The law regarding wharves deals with access to wharves, rates that may be charged, and liability issues surrounding the use of these facilities.

There are public and private wharves. Public wharves, which can be used with or without paying a fee, ordinarily belong to a government organization, such as a city or town. Private wharves are owned or leased by individuals for their own private use. Such a wharf may be opened to the public in exchange for a one-time payment or a rental fee. If the public is allowed to use the private wharf, it becomes a quasi-public facility that is open to all who are able to pay the charges. Whether a particular wharf is public or private depends mainly on its use, rather than on its ownership.

There are several terms peculiar to wharves. Wharfage in its most general sense refers to the use of a wharf in the usual course of navigation for such practices as loading and unloading goods and passengers. In a more restricted sense, the term wharfage refers to a charge or rent for the use of the wharf. A wharfinger is an individual who maintains a wharf for the purposes of receiving goods for hire. The term dock refers to an enclosure for the reception of vessels as well as a place where ships are built and repaired. It can include bulkheads, piers, slips, a waterway, wharves, and the space between wharves.

Government Regulation

Though the federal government has reserved the right to control and regulate the use of wharves, the jurisdiction and control of these facilities is generally in the hands of the states where the wharves are located. Government supervision is ordinarily exercised through statutes that give stipulated powers to local boards and commissions. Such powers include the power to supervise and regulate wharf construction, use, and maintenance, the depth of waters surrounding wharves, and their lighting and policing.

Wharfage Rates

Local laws may govern wharfage rates for the use of public wharves. The rates may be fixed to benefit and increase commerce in the port, but the rates must be reasonable.A user will be subject to a charge, even for limited periods of time. Such charges may be graduated on the basis of the gross tonnage of the vessel using the wharf. When the costs for the use of private wharves are not regulated, the parties may freely bargain for compensation, and there is no requirement of reasonableness.


The proprietors of wharves have the legal obligation to provide a safe berth and must use reasonable care to keep the dock in a reasonably safe condition for use by vessels invited to enter it. The owner of the dock must exercise reasonable diligence to discover the existence of defects, obstructions, and other hazards that would make the wharf unsafe to vessels. The owner is liable for harm incurred by a vessel that results from the owner's failure to meet this duty. Wharf proprietors have been found liable for injuries to vessels resulting from an uneven ocean bottom or from submerged obstructions, such as rock, cinders, or a sunken ship.

A vessel must be furnished with ordinary mooring devices. The wharf owner owes a duty of reasonable care in maintaining the fastenings for a vessel, including the duty of inspecting the line securing the vessel. Negligence by the wharf owner in failing to properly moor the vessel will result in liability for injuries to the vessel and its crew. However, if an employee of the ship supervises the mooring, the responsibility shifts to the owners of the ship.

Injuries to Wharves

The proprietor of a wharf has a right to use and enjoy the property undisturbed by the negligent conduct of others. A wharf proprietor can recover damages for injury to the wharf that results from the negligent operation of a vessel.


Shipping Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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