The globe is buzzing with maritime activity making it just as susceptible to accidents as any roadway you travel on in your city. The difference, however, is that maritime activity often involves people or vessels from multiple countries interacting on the waterways. An admiralty lawyer, versed in these unique laws, can quickly cut through the confusion of these kinds of cases, so they aren’t subject to dismissal mistakes.

Land-based accidents are more obvious when identifying people and places than those that take place on the water. This makes the jurisdiction of a case somewhat easy to decide.

However, when an accident happens on waterways, matters become complicated quickly and have many moving parts.

For example, if two boats collide off the coast on Florida, the case isn’t automatically heard in a state court. Factors like the vessel’s origin, the vessel’s owner’s country of origin, the contents of the ship and whether the ship is used for pleasure or commercial use are just some aspects used in considering jurisdiction. Once those factors are understood, only then will jurisdiction be determined.      

Admiralty Jurisdiction Defined

In the simplest terms, admiralty jurisdiction defines what courts are responsible for interpreting and enforcing the laws in regards to maritime activity. In 1789, Congress stated that accidents or incidents on the sea are subject to a federal district court. The event will have occurred on “navigable waters” determined if a vessel is in commercial use on a waterway.

For example, if an accident involving cargo from Mexico is traveling up the Mississippi, you might think that state courts would preside since the Mississippi is located in U.S. territory. This isn’t the case necessarily, as the country of origin is now a factor as is the body of water since it has access to international waterways. If an accident occurs in waters that are land-locked, only then do cases go to a state court typically. 

Factors of Admiralty Jurisdiction

Not only does a vessel need to be in navigable waters, but it also needs to be “in navigation” when it comes to determining jurisdiction. Some of the determinants of what makes a vessel “in navigation” are:

  • Navigable aids – Does the vessel have items like a compass, radar equipment, autopilot, transponders, echo sounders, electronic charts systems, AIS (automatic Identification system), data recorder, GPS devices, horns, maintenance or voyage records.
  • Life-Saving Equipment – Does the vessel have lifeboats, tenders, flares, life vests, flotation devices, medical and first aid equipment, or evacuation equipment.
  • Raked Bow – Vessels with this type of bow design are used to move cargo, equipment or people pointing to its use as a navigable ship. 
  • Bilge Pumps – The presence of bilge pumps suggests that a vessel is in operation and can navigate waterways for recreational or commercial use.
  • Crew Quarters – A vessel with crew accommodations like berths, staterooms, heads, and galleys place a ship into the “in navigation” category.
  • Traditional Maritime Activity – Activities of both pleasure or commercial watercraft participating in intended vessel use.
  • Interruption of Maritime Commerce – This includes how an accident disrupts the economic pathways that commercial vessels rely on for business.

An admiralty lawyer can break down specific situations, including intent to move the vessel and how often, and how all these details play a role in determining jurisdiction. These are all critical elements to consider as state and federal laws can differ and completely change the outcome of a case.

The situations above, especially if an accident involved injury or death, would typically be heard in a federal district court. However, there are circumstances in which a case will be heard in a state court.

Saving to Suitors Clause

This clause allows a claimant to have a case heard in the state court if the state law doesn’t conflict with the federal admiralty laws. The state courts would be obligated to use the federal regulations to preside over the case required by 28 U.S.C §1333.

Why Admiralty Jurisdiction Matters

In short, accidents on the water tend to take on intricate variables which are why these cases end up in admiralty courts. At face value, cases at sea resulting in injury, crime or even death may seem straight forward and easily heard in a standard courtroom. The nature of these cases, however, is they end up impacting multiple parties on both private and public levels. Jurisdiction influences how compensation is awarded and how it sets a precedent for future legal cases.

Our professional admiralty lawyers would like to hear the details of your accident to help you with more information on how your case might be heard in a maritime court. Please contact us today to set up an appointment with the Madalon Law Office.