Overview of Admiralty Jurisdiction
By Edward Petkevis, Esq., LL.M, Admiralty
Published By the New Jersey State Bar Association, Institute for Continuing Legal Education
Admiralty jurisdiction is vested in the Federal courts pursuant to the United States Constitution, which provides that the judicial Power of the Supreme Court shall extend to “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” U.S. Const. Art. III, § 2. This power was extended to the district courts by the Judiciary Act. 28 U.S.C. § 1333. Admiralty jurisdiction for crimes is vested in the federal courts by the United States Constitution Article I § 8, which gives Congress the power “[t]o define and Punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the High Seas.”
A threshold requirement to determine the existence of admiralty jurisdiction is the presence of navigable waters. Not all waters are navigable. The basic test of navigability for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction is set forth in The Daniel Ball: 77 U.S. 557, 563, 19 L. Ed. 999, 2000 AMC 2106 (1870): Admiralty jurisdiction extends to navigable waters, which are those susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water.
The threshold requirement under this test is the presence of an “interstate nexus;” the waterbody in question must be available as a continuous highway for commerce between ports and places in different states, or between a state and a foreign country. Thus, a natural or artificial waterbody that is wholly within the confines of one state and is not susceptible of being used as an interstate artery of commerce, is not navigable waters for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction. Warner Co., 354 F.Supp. 453, 1972 AMC 2007 (E.D.Pa.1972), affirmed without opinion 485 F.2d 680, 1974 AMC 254 (3d Cir.1973) (no jurisdiction over landlocked lake completely within Commonwealth of Pennsylvania); Doran v. Lee, 287 F.Supp. 807 (W.D.Pa.1968) (no jurisdiction over landlocked lake wholly in one state). On the other hand, reservoirs and lakes that border on two or more states may be navigable and within admiralty jurisdiction. Bond v. Doig, 433 F.Supp. 243 (D.N.J.1977).
Piers, wharves, bridges, jetties, and ramps, are not within admiralty jurisdiction even if they are built over navigable waters; these are considered extensions of the land. The Plymouth, 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 20, 18 L.Ed. 125 (1866).
Conversely, a fall from a gangplank is within admiralty jurisdiction as the gangplank is considered an extension of the vessel. The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649, 55 S.Ct. 885, 79 L.Ed. 1633 (1935).
The Admiralty Extension Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30101, provides that admiralty and maritime jurisdiction extends to and includes all cases of damage or injury, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable water, notwithstanding that such damage or injury be done or consummated on land.
Admiralty cases include causes of action arising both in contract and in tort. The traditional test for admiralty tort jurisdiction was originally based upon “locality” alone, meaning, there was admiralty jurisdiction so long as the incident occurred on navigable waters. “Every species of tort, however occurring, and whether on board a vessel or not, if upon the high seas or navigable waters, is of admiralty cognizance.” Hough v. Western Transp. Co. (The Plymouth), 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 20, 18 L.Ed. 125 (1865). Subsequent Supreme Court cases have trimmed this jurisdiction, however. In Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249, 93 S.Ct. 493, 34 L.Ed.2d 454, 1973 AMC 1 (1972), a jet aircraft taking off struck a flock of sea gulls, lost power, and crashed into the navigable waters of Lake Erie. The Supreme court held that admiralty jurisdiction was lacking because the wrong did not bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. (If, however, such a crash occurred on the high seas, i.e., more than three nautical miles from shore, then admiralty jurisdiction would be supported as the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30301 by its terms allows for such jurisdiction).
The definition of what constitutes “traditional maritime activity” was later refined to include both commercial and non-commercial maritime activities. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668, 102 S.Ct. 2654, 73 L.Ed.2d 300, 1982 AMC 2253 (1982). This was further refined in Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 110 S.Ct. 2892, 111 L.Ed.2d 292, 1990 AMC 1801 (1990). The test for admiralty tort jurisdiction requires that an incident (1) occur on navigable waters; (2) bear a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity; and (3) have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce.
The types of tort cases that can be heard in admiralty include:
1. collision cases between vessels, or an allision case where a vessel strikes a fixed object.
2. cargo claims, where cargo shipped on board a vessel is lost, damaged or destroyed during transit.
3. seaman's claims may be tried in admiralty under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688 et seq., and/or under the general maritime law. Anyone who is employed to work on a vessel on navigable waters, and who contributes to the function of the vessel, may be a seaman under the Jones Act. Seaman have a right to proceed in admiralty for both personal injury, as well as for what’s known as maintenance and cure, which is a payment consisting generally of lost wages, medical care, and a stipend for subsistence.
4. passenger claims, such as on a cruise ship, or any type of vessel, are within admiralty jurisdiction. If someone is a passenger on board a ship, then they may assert a claim against a ship if they are injured due to the vessel’s negligence.
5. oil spills that occur on navigable waters.
6. personal injury cases that occurs on navigable waters, so long as the activity being conducted bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity; and has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce.
7. property damage claims that arise on navigable waters, so long as the activity being conducted bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity; and has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce.
Admiralty Contract Jurisdiction
The test for admiralty jurisdiction regarding contracts is generally determined by the subject matter of the contract. Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 12 L.Ed. 226 (1847).
Admiralty contract jurisdiction does not depend on locality, but extends over all contracts which relate to the navigation, business, or commerce of the sea. New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344, 12 L.Ed. 465 (1848). A maritime contract is one that relates to a ship in its use as such, or to commerce or to navigation on navigable waters, or to transportation by sea or to maritime employment. Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 81 S.Ct. 886, 6 L.Ed.2d 56 (1961).
A contract to construct a vessel, because it is performed on land and not yet on a vessel in navigation, is outside admiralty jurisdiction, People's Ferry Co. v. Beers, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 393, 15 L.Ed. 961 (1858), while a contract to repair a vessel in navigation is within admiralty jurisdiction. New Bedford Dry Dock Co. v. Purdy, 258 U.S. 96, 42 S.Ct. 243, 66 L.Ed. 482 (1922); Federal Maritime Lien Act, 46 U.S.C. at § 31342.
Generally, the types of contracts that support admiralty jurisdiction include:
1. contracts to repair, furnish services or supplies to a vessel in navigation;
2. claims relating to agreements involving the use of a vessel and charter parties (leases) and other arrangements for the hire of a vessel;
3. seamen's employment contracts;
4. vessel storage contracts for a vessel in navigation;
5. contracts for carriage of cargo;
6. stevedoring contracts pertaining to loading and unloading of vessels;
7. contracts for the carriage of passengers by water;
8. maritime insurance contracts;
9. pilotage contracts;
11. salvage contracts;
13. towage contracts;
14. dredging contracts;
15. ship mortgages covered by the Ship Mortgage Act of 1920.
16. Claims based upon products liability are within admiralty jurisdiction if they meet the requirements of admiralty tort jurisdiction, for negligence, and, if based upon breach of warranty or the breach of an implied warranty of workmanlike performance, if they meet the requirements of admiralty contract jurisdiction. East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 106 S.Ct. 2295, 90 L.Ed.2d 865, 1986 AMC 2027 (1986).
Exclusive Admiralty Jurisdiction
There are certain cases that involve maritime matters that may be heard in both state and federal court. However, there are certain matters that may only be determined in federal court. These include:
1. Actions in rem,(suits brought directly against a vessel itself or other maritime property), Madruga v. Superior Court, 346 U.S. 556, 74 S.Ct. 298, 98 L.Ed. 290, 1954 AMC 405 (1954).
2. Salvage claims, (where someone saves property from being lost at sea, they have a claim for a percentage of the value of the property saved, including sunken treasure). Houseman v. The North Carolina, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 40, 10 L.Ed. 653 (1841).
3. Prize claims, (actions in rem brought by the United States against vessels and cargoes of enemy nations in time of war). The Prize Cases, 67 U.S. (2 Black) 635, 17 L.Ed. 459 (1863).
4. General average, (for example, where a ship is in danger of being lost at sea, and the seamen need to throw over some of the cargo to prevent the vessel and the remaining cargo from being lost, the owners of the cargo that was sacrificed have a claim in general average against the ship and the remaining cargo to spread the loss). Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. Cleveland, 409 U.S. at 269–70, 93 S.Ct. at 505.
5. Suits arising under the Limitation of Shipowners' Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501 et seq.
6. The Ship Mortgage Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 31301 et seq.
7. The Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30901 et seq. (Which allows a case to be brought against the the United States of America as if it were a private vessel owner).
8. The Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 31101 et seq. (Which extends lawsuits allowed under the suits in Admiralty act to include warships of the United States).
9. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. 28 U.S.C. § 1330. (Which applies to Suits against foreign states and their instrumentalities; this Act applies to both maritime and non-maritime claims).
10. Review and enforcement of orders under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901 to 950 (1988), which provides compensation in lieu of tort damages for “longshoremen,” land-based workers who perform a variety of tasks for, on, and around vessels, and for third party negligence claims brought by longshoreman injured by a vessel.