Determining Admiralty Jurisdiction

If an individual has sustained a maritime-related injury, that is, an injury at sea or an injury related to employment at sea, the last thing that he or she is thinking about is whether or not a court has jurisdiction to hear the case. However, your admiralty attorney will tell you that in admiralty law, jurisdiction is very important. Generally speaking, jurisdiction (with respect to the law and the court system) concerns the right or authority of a court to apply and interpret the law as it relates to your case. Not all courts have the authority to hear and decide every type of case. With respect to admiralty cases, federal district courts are given the power to hear such cases under the U.S. Constitution. Also, in certain situations, a state court is permitted to decide an admiralty case. In cases where both the state and federal courts are authorized to handle the case, the jurisdiction would be referred to as “concurrent” jurisdiction, and you may be able to decide which court you’d prefer to file in.

What You Should Know About Admiralty Jurisdiction

Just about any admiralty attorney knows that making a determination as to whether or not a case is governed by admiralty law and jurisdiction is not as simple as some people think. Just because a vessel of some sort is part of the case or there was some type of event that took place on the water does not always mean that the occurrence automatically triggers admiralty jurisdiction.

Generally, if a case stems from an incident that took place on U.S. “navigable waters” and involves either two vessels crashing or a seaman injury, or a passenger injury on a vessel, the case will likely be subject to admiralty jurisdiction. Moreover, cases in which a crime was committed against an American citizen or vessel on the high seas are generally  within admiralty jurisdiction. And with regard to contracts, cases that involve agreements related to the commerce, navigation or business of the sea (as in the case of chartered vessels or carrying cargo) are typically subject to admiralty jurisdiction as well.

What difference does this make? Well, put simply, the body of law that applies to your admiralty case is very different than the law that would apply outside of admiralty. As an example, a slip and fall incident aboard a cruise ship implicates an entirely different set of laws (admiralty laws, also referred to the General Maritime Law), than would a slip and fall in say a CVS or Walgreens. The slip and fall in the convenience store would involve questions of state law, rather than admiralty/maritime law. In the end, these differences in the law can make all the difference in your case and that is why it is imperative to speak an experienced admiralty and maritime attorney regarding your case.

Vessels in Navigation on Navigable Waters

When seeking to establish jurisdiction, certain elements must exist. For instance, if the injured individual is a seaman, he must have been in the service of a vessel that was “in navigation and on navigable waters.” More specifically, vessels in navigation are those that are being utilized as “instruments of transportation and commerce on navigable waters.” Certain courts have expanded the principle of “in navigation” to include even those vessels that are dry docked if those vessels are experiencing minor or routine repairs.

With regard to the concept of “navigable waters,” when it comes to admiralty jurisdiction, water is navigable if it forms a continuous highway that is capable of sustaining foreign and/or interstate commerce either on its own or by combining with other bodies of water. Frankly, it is not always easy for courts to determine whether or not an accident that occurs on navigable waters actually involves some facet of maritime commerce. Still, it is important to ensure that the appropriate federal maritime laws are applied to cases within admiralty jurisdiction because the laws often vary from the state laws, such that the federal laws might actually be more favorable to an individual than the state laws.

If you or a loved one has questions about admiralty law and jurisdiction, contact a skilled admiralty attorney at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. today.