U.S. Federal vs. State Court Jurisdiction Over Maritime Claims Under 28 U.S.C. §1333

Both the federal government and individual state governments have an interest in regulating maritime activity, and each have created a variety of laws that govern maritime injury and death cases.

This can make it difficult to determine whether a state or federal court has jurisdiction over a maritime case and whether state or federal law (or both) should be applied to that case.

The Role of 28 U.S.C. §1333 in Maritime Injury and Death Cases

The U.S. Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789 give federal courts jurisdiction over admiralty cases. Now codified as 28 U.S.C. §1333, the Judiciary Act states that:

"The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of…Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled" (emphasis added).

The first part of section 1333 indicates that federal courts, rather than state courts, have jurisdiction over admiralty cases. Therefore, one of the first considerations in a maritime personal injury or death case is whether the case falls under federal admiralty jurisdiction.

As a general rule of thumb, a maritime injury or death case is likely to fall under federal admiralty jurisdiction if it

  • occurred in navigable waters;
  • has a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity; and
  • has the potential to disrupt maritime commerce.

If a maritime injury or death case does not meet the above criteria, it is likely that state, rather than federal law, should apply.

Certain admiralty death and injury claims can only be filed in federal court, including in rem proceedings where the vessel itself is being sued. However, the second part of section 1333 (known as the "saving to suitors" clause) complicates other types of maritime cases considerably.

The Saving to Suitors Clause

The "saving to suitors" clause gives suitors (plaintiffs) the right to pursue certain claims in state, rather than federal courts, even if the case falls under admiralty jurisdiction. When a state court hears an admiralty case, the court usually must apply federal admiralty law to that case.

However, if state law does not conflict with established admiralty law, state law may be applied to maritime cases. This helps ensure that plaintiffs will still have access to "all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled," as required by 28 U.S.C §1333.

A number of legal scholars have suggested that the Founding Fathers included the "saving to suitors" clause in the Judiciary Act because they recognized that (1) individual states should be able to regulate the activities of their citizens; and (2) that federal law should not take away rights that someone would otherwise be entitled to under state law.

Judicial Decisions Interpreting 28 U.S.C. §1333

The meaning and implications of the vaguely-worded "saving to suitors" clause have been litigated in many courts, and the resulting decisions have not always been consistent.

The below decisions illustrate the complexity of determining jurisdiction over maritime matters and which "other remedies" (beyond federal law remedies) may be available under the saving to suitors clause.

The Supreme Court in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen (1917) held that a New York state worker's compensation law conflicted with general maritime law and therefore could not be applied to the accidental death of a worker in New York Harbor. The Court said that state laws cannot "work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law." The Jensen decision has been the basis for a number of subsequent decisions limiting the applicability of state law in maritime injury and death cases.

Just a few years later, the Supreme Court found that some matters were "maritime but local," meaning state or federal law could properly be applied. In Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia (1921), the Court held that applying a state wrongful death statute to a death in navigable waters would "not work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, nor interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law." Similarly, in Red Cross Line v. Atlantic Fruit Co. (1924), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that state law could be applied to maritime matters, as long as it did not conflict with established federal maritime law.

In its 1942 decision in Davis v. Department of Labor, the Supreme Court again grappled with the "maritime but local" nature of overlapping federal and state laws. In Davis, the Court found that some types of worker injuries fell into a "twilight zone" between state and federal law. Therefore, maritime workers could be entitled to seek compensation under either state or federal compensation statutes in certain circumstances.

In its 1986 decision in Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, the Supreme Court held that Louisiana's state wrongful death statute did not apply to a death that occurred on the high seas. Therefore, the plaintiffs could only receive the compensation due to them under federal law, not the additional damages they would have been eligible for under Louisiana law.

These are just a few of the decisions affecting jurisdiction over maritime injury and death cases. A maritime attorney can help you understand which laws apply to your particular case.

Determining Whether to File a Maritime Injury or Death Lawsuit in State or Federal Court

The judicial decisions surrounding whether state or federal law applies have not always been consistent. In fact, in American Dredging Co. v. Miller (1994) the Supreme Court acknowledged that even its own decisions had not been "entirely consistent" in maritime cases. This makes it complicated to determine whether state or federal law governs an injury or death case.

The decision of whether to apply state or federal law can have major consequences in a maritime injury or death case. Because federal law and state law differ, different amounts and types of compensation may be available, depending on which laws are applied.

It is also important to note that filing a maritime injury or death case in state court (even if permissible under the saving to suitors clause) does not guarantee that a case will stay in state court. In a limited number of circumstances, a defendant can request that the case be "removed" from state court into federal court. If a case is removed to federal court, an attorney needs to be familiar with federal rules in order to help you receive the compensation you may be due under federal maritime law.

Comprehensive Maritime Personal Injury Lawyers in Maryland

If you have been injured or lost a love one due to a maritime injury, an experienced maritime attorney can help you determine whether your case should be filed in state or federal court. Contact Gilman & Bedigian to learn more.

Let Us Help

If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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