Jurisdiction is the official power to make legal decisions and judgments, and it is often one of the first considerations in a maritime injury or death case. In maritime lawsuits, jurisdiction questions often hinge on two different but related issues:
- whether a lawsuit should be filed in state or federal court; and
- whether state or federal law will decide the outcome of the lawsuit.
State and federal laws regarding maritime injury and death lawsuits are different. Therefore, the results of a lawsuit can be very different, depending on whether it falls under state or federal jurisdiction.
Who has jurisdiction over maritime injury and death lawsuits?
The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of maritime activity, and they developed a system of laws and courts to resolve maritime travel and commerce disputes.
The U.S. Constitution established the federal court system, including the Supreme Court and "such inferior Courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Congress established our system of "inferior" or lower courts shortly thereafter via the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Both the Constitution and the Judiciary Act give these federal courts jurisdiction over admiralty lawsuits. This means that many (though not all) maritime injury and death cases are heard in federal courts and are decided based on federal maritime law.
Individual states also have their own personal injury and wrongful death laws, which may differ from federal maritime law. If a case falls under state jurisdiction rather than federal admiralty jurisdiction, state law is likely to apply.
It can be complicated to determine whether a maritime injury or death lawsuit falls under admiralty jurisdiction. Below we describe some of the key criteria for determining whether federal admiralty jurisdiction (and therefore federal law) applies to a particular injury or death case.
An experienced maritime lawyer at Gilman & Bedigian can provide more information regarding the circumstances of your particular case.
Key Requirements for Admiralty jurisdiction
Neither the Constitution nor the Judiciary Act clearly spell out the exact meaning of "admiralty" for purposes of defining federal admiralty jurisdiction. The federal courts themselves have hashed out the definition through hundreds of years of judicial decision-making.
In general, an injury or death lawsuit currently falls under federal admiralty jurisdiction if:
- It occurs in navigable waters (this is often referred to as the "location" test); and
- It has a substantial connection to traditional maritime activity (this is often referred to as the "nexus" or "connection" test).
Did the injury or death occur in navigable waters?
To satisfy the "location" test for admiralty jurisdiction, the injury or death must occur on "navigable waters."
Navigable waters include:
- U.S. territorial waters, less than 12 nautical miles from the coast
- The high seas, more than 12 nautical miles from the coast
- Lakes, rivers, manmade canals and other bodies of water that connect the U.S. to another country or to the ocean; or that connect two or more states to each other.
The body of water must also be "navigable in fact," meaning that it is capable of being used as a "highway for commerce," on which trade and travel may be conducted "in the customary modes of travel on water." These "customary modes" are not limited to massive cargo ships. Smaller vessels such as pleasure boats and even kayaks have been included in the definition of "customary modes of travel on water."
If there are natural or artificial obstructions--such as debris or a dam--that prevent travel, the waters are not considered navigable. Even if the waters were previously navigable (for example, before a dam was installed), they are not considered navigable for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction. The body of water must be navigable at the time the injury or death occurred for admiralty jurisdiction to apply.
If a body of water is wholly contained within a state and does not connect to any other body of water, it is likely not considered "navigable." For example, an injury that occurred in Maryland's Deep Creek Lake—a landlocked lake that does not cross state lines—would likely fall under state, rather than admiralty, jurisdiction. In contrast, an injury that occurs on the Chesapeake Bay—a body of water that is commonly used for trade and travel—would almost certainly satisfy the location test for admiralty jurisdiction.
In a maritime personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, the relevant question is where the injury or death occurred, not where the allegedly negligent act that contributed to the injury or death occurred. For example, if improper crew training (a negligent act) contributed to an injury that occurred on navigable waters, then admiralty jurisdiction might apply, even if the training itself occurred on land.
An exception to this general rule is that admiralty jurisdiction also extends to injuries or deaths that are caused by a vessel operating in navigable waters, even if the injury or death occurred on land. Per the Admiralty Jurisdiction Extension Act, "the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States shall extend to and include 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."
Is the injury or death connected to traditional maritime activity?
In order for a lawsuit to fall under admiralty jurisdiction, it must be shown that the circumstances that contributed to the injury or death:
- had a "significant relationship" to traditional maritime activity; and
- the potential to disrupt commercial maritime activity.
Traditional maritime activity has been broadly defined by the courts. It includes activities such as:
- launching, steering or operating a vessel
- loading cargo
- harvesting oysters or clams
- storing and maintaining a vessel at a marina.
A vessel needs to be involved in commercial activity in order for it to fall under admiralty jurisdiction. For example, in Foremost Insurance Company v. Richardson, the Supreme Court decided that a collision between two small pleasure boats fell under admiralty jurisdiction because most vessel collisions have the potential to disrupt maritime commerce and the boat owners were engaged in a traditional maritime activity.
Why jurisdiction matters in maritime injury and death cases
Federal and state personal injury and wrongful death law are different in many ways. Therefore, the results of a case can be different depending on whether the case falls under state or admiralty jurisdiction.
A few of the major differences are:
- Different types of damages may be available. Many states, including Maryland, allow courts to award what are called punitive damages in certain personal injury and wrongful death cases. If it can be shown that the party causing the injury did so willfully, punitive damages may be awarded, in addition to any amounts that may be awarded for things like medical expenses or lost wages. Punitive damages are rarely available in federal admiralty cases.
- Contributory negligence. Maryland and other U.S. state jurisdictions apply a "contributory" negligence rule to personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. In contributory negligence states, damages cannot be recovered on behalf of a person whose own negligence contributed to their injury or death. In contrast, federal maritime law uses a "comparative" fault rule, assigning partial responsibility to each party based on their degree of negligence. This means that it may be possible to recover damages in federal court, even if a person's own negligence contributed to their injury.
- Assumption of risk. Some states have "assumption of risk" laws regarding activities that are deemed inherently risky, such as speedboating, waterskiing or sailboat racing. According to assumption of risk laws, a person assumes a certain degree of risk by engaging in those activities. Therefore, acts that might be considered negligent in less-risky contexts are "assumed" to be part of the inherent risk of participating in dangerous activities. "Assumption of risk" defenses are not permitted in admiralty cases.
- Duty of care. In admiralty cases, vessel owners only owe passengers a "common duty of care." State laws may require a "heightened" or "utmost" duty of care in some situations.
- Right to a jury trial. Most admiralty lawsuits are decided before a judge, rather than a jury. In contrast, many lawsuits in state courts are eligible for a jury trial.
- Different statutes of limitation. Most federal personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within three years of an injury or death. Lawsuits against the federal government under the Public Vessels Act or Suits in Admiralty Act must be filed within two years. These timelines may be different from the timelines for personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits filed in a state court.
As a concrete example, imagine a worker who was injured when they fell down an open hatch. The employer's negligence was 75% responsible for the injury, and the worker's negligence was 25% responsible. A court decides to award $100,000 in damages for the injury. In a federal court, the worker would receive $75,000 (75% of the award) because his employer was 75% responsible for the injury. In a Maryland state court, the worker would receive nothing because his own negligence contributed to his injury.
Additional complexities in admiralty jurisdiction
Federal law is made up of Congressional law and federal court decisions. The federal courts operate hierarchically. Once a case is decided by the Supreme Court, all the lower courts are bound by that decision and the law is the same across the land. However, if neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has decided a particular point of law, then different Circuit Courts may hold different opinions. This means it is possible for the federal laws governing a maritime injury lawsuit to be different in different locations.
Admiralty jurisdiction is further complicated by the "savings to suitors" clause of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which permits the filing of lawsuits in state court in all cases where the state court "was competent to provide a remedy."
In practice, this means many maritime injury and death lawsuits that fall under admiralty jurisdiction can be filed in either federal or state court. This means you may have a choice of forum--state or federal--when filing a maritime lawsuit. A notable exception is in rem lawsuits, where the vessel itself (rather than the vessel owner) is sued. In rem proceedings always fall under admiralty jurisdiction and are tried in federal courts.
If a state court hears an admiralty case, the state court must apply federal admiralty law if 1) a settled federal admiralty rule exists and 2) applying a contrary state law would disturb the "uniformity" of admiralty law.
Another complicating factor is that maritime employment contracts often include "choice of law" provisions that specify which state or country has jurisdiction over disagreements. A contract may require that lawsuits are filed in a specific state court, federal court or even the court of a different country.
Jurisdiction is just one of the many complicated aspects of maritime law. If you or a loved one have been injured in a maritime accident, a maritime attorney can help determine:
- whether your case falls under admiralty jurisdiction;
- whether it would be more beneficial to file your lawsuit in state or federal court; and
- most importantly, how to get the maximum compensation you are due under state or federal law.
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Contact the maritime attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.