Hunt & Associates P.C.

Admiralty Law: An Overview

Admiralty or maritime law is that body of law which applies to waterborne commerce and events which take place on the navigable waters, i.e., the high seas, territorial waters, harbors, rivers and inland waterways, including the Great Lakes. It is the law which governs vessels, navigation, seamen, the carriage of goods and passengers over water, marine insurance, maritime liens and salvage. It is generally, but not always, the province of the federal courts, by virtue of Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that the “judicial power” of the United States extends “to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction”. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty cases. With enactment of The Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress created the federal district courts and assigned to them “original cognizance of all civil cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors…the right to a common law remedy where common law is competent to give it”. The “savings to suitors” clause was inserted to allow a litigant the option, in some cases, to bring a maritime claim in state court, with a right to a jury trial.

The legal traditions and principles which are the foundation of admiralty law in America trace their origins, naturally, to England, where admiralty courts had existed for centuries prior to the American Revolution. The admiralty courts in England were entirely separate from the common law courts which adjudicated other civil and criminal matters, and developed in accord with their own principles. English admiralty law traces its roots to the Rules of Oleron, first promulgated in 1190 A.D., by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard I of England. In her travels to the eastern Mediterranean during one of the early crusades, Eleanor is said to have become acquainted with the Rhodian law which had governed commerce in that part of the world from as early as the first century A.D. Upon her return from the crusades, Eleanor codified these legal principles into what we know as the Rules of Oleron, and those principles became the basis for maritime law in England. Admiralty law is among the oldest known bodies of law, and its centuries old traditions and principles continue to exert their influence today. Indeed, among the Rules of Oleron can be found the long recognized entitlement of a sick or injured seaman to receive maintenance and cure, by which his employer provides medical care, food and lodging until the seaman recovers to the maximum extent possible.  That right survives to this day.

A federal court’s admiralty jurisdiction is not entirely without bounds when it comes to disputes involving a vessel. The court’s power to adjudicate admiralty cases is limited to disputes involving maritime contracts and maritime torts. Whether a particular contract is of the maritime variety, and within the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, is not always easy to determine. Generally, a contract is considered to be a maritime contract when it relates to a vessel and its commercial operation, navigation or transport of cargo or passengers. Court decisions over the years distinguishing maritime contracts from those that are not reveal some interesting distinctions. For example, a charter party dispute, which relates to the lease of a vessel for a specified voyage or period of time, is considered to be a maritime contract, and thus within admiralty jurisdiction. However, a contract to sell a vessel is not a maritime contract. Another interesting distinction: a contract to repair a vessel is maritime in nature, but a ship construction contract is not. Still another example: the interpretation of a marine insurance policy is within admiralty jurisdiction; a suit to recover unpaid premiums on that policy is not.

Whether a particular tort is within admiralty jurisdiction has also been extensively litigated, and the contours of what constitutes a maritime tort have changed over the years. Traditionally, admiralty jurisdiction over torts was dependent on locality; that is, if the event took place on navigable waters, it was a maritime tort. If the tort took place on land, it was not a maritime tort and it was not justiciable in admiralty. More recently, however, the traditional test of a maritime tort has been discarded for a more discriminating approach. Courts now use a two part test to determine whether an event is subject to admiralty jurisdiction as a maritime tort. The relevant event must both (1) occur on navigable waters, and (2) bear a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity, such that the event has a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce. Maritime torts, however, are not limited to commercial ventures; a collision between two pleasure craft, for example, qualifies as a maritime tort so as to be cognizable in admiralty. Similarly, a fire aboard a yacht moored at a marina is sufficiently maritime in nature so as to be within an admiralty court’s jurisdiction. Maritime torts include such occurrences as personal injury claims made by seamen or passengers, vessel collisions and groundings, and oil pollution caused by vessel operations.

One of the distinguishing features of a case in admiralty is the ability of a claimant to file a lawsuit against a vessel itself, in rem. In that regard, the vessel is considered to be a legal entity in its own right, subject to legal process. This feature of admiralty law can be advantageous to an aggrieved party who now has a second potential defendant (after the vessel owner) to look to for relief. For example, a passenger injured aboard a cruise ship or a crewmember injured while serving aboard a vessel can file a lawsuit in admiralty against the vessel itself, in rem, as well as bringing a claim in personam against the vessel’s owner or operators. The ability to maintain an in rem action can be particularly important in instances in which the vessel owners or operators cannot be found in the venue where the plaintiff is located. Consider, for example, a vessel underway on the high seas suffers an engine failure and is in need of tug assistance to make the nearest port for necessary repairs. Both the tug’s owner and the shipyard performing the repairs can protect their rights to payment by enforcing a maritime lien against the vessel and, if necessary, bringing an action in rem in the district court where the vessel is located. Procedurally, this involves obtaining an arrest warrant from the local federal court which, once obtained, is given to a federal marshal for service upon the vessel. Once the papers are served, the vessel is prohibited from leaving the jurisdiction until an acceptable amount of security has been posted by the vessel owners or its insurers.

In general, there is no right to a trial by jury in admiralty cases, but the “savings to suitors” clause mentioned above does allow a plaintiff to commence a maritime based claim, in personam, in state court and demand a jury trial. Some federal statutes, such as the Jones Act, allow an injured seaman to sue the employer for claims arising in negligence, with the right to a jury trial. Any in rem action, however, must be tried in admiralty, and there is no right to a trial by jury.

Our firm includes lawyers with substantial experience in the practice of admiralty law. We can represent you in any of the following areas of admiralty law, and welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can be of assistance.

Practice Areas:

  • Seaman’s personal injury
  • Cruise ship liability
  • Marine insurance
  • Cargo damage claims
  • Collision with other vessels or fixed structures
  • Recreational boating accidents
  • S. Coast Guard license forfeiture proceedings
  • Salvage
  • Maritime liens
  • Vessel mortgages

© 4/15/2015 Charles A. Ford of Hunt & Associates, P.C.  All rights reserved.

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