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Admiralty Jurisdiction: A Challenge for Even the Seasoned Practitioner

May 2001

Determining whether admiralty jurisdiction exists over a particular claim can prove extremely challenging, even for those well versed in admiralty law. This article examines the history, landmark cases, and how to determine where the baseline exists on a coastal state.

by Michael A. Orlando
Meyer Orlando, LLC

The starting point for any discussion on maritime law is the subject of admiralty jurisdiction. Admiralty jurisdiction is founded on the U.S. Constitution. Article 3, section 2, provides: "The jurisdictional power shall extend ... to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." Consequently, Congress was allowed to begin statutorily defining the boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction. The first such statute came in 1789 with the First Judiciary Act (Act of September 24, 1789, chapter 20, section 9, 1 Stat. 73). Early court decisions gave this provision a fairly broad reading.

The current statutory grant of admiralty jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. section 1333, is also quite broadly written. It continues to include the element of allowing state courts concurrent jurisdiction through the "savings to suitors" clause when there are "other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled." Under the "savings to suitors" clause, state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over admiralty claims when a state court is competent to grant relief, which is in most instances when in personam jurisdiction may be had in a state court.

There are exceptions, of course, where, by federal statute, Congress has given federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over certain remedies. Generally, those are contained in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. section 1330, the Limitation of Shipowners Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. section 183, the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. section 741, the Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. section 781 and the Ship Mortgage Act, 46 U.S.C. section 911.

It is interesting to note that admiralty and maritime law is the only subject matter as a separate body of law that the founding fathers saw fit to put in the U.S. Constitution. For all other federal district court jurisdiction, Congress has created "federal question" and "diversity of citizenship" jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. sections 1331 and 1332, respectively. This has led the courts to conclude that admiralty claims are not within "federal question" jurisdiction in 28 U.S.C. section 1331. Later articles will touch on the confusion this has caused, for instance in federal court removal situations.

Like most provisions in the U.S. Constitution, it has taken the courts many years to define the parameters of the admiralty and maritime jurisdictional grant. Indeed, our federal courts are still struggling to define its outer limits in complex areas where maritime law overlaps with state or international law. Federalism, in the interest of developing a uniform law, has been the dominant idea in the development of admiralty jurisdiction from the inception.

Landmark Cases

One of the earliest landmark cases in this area is Southern Pacific Company v Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 37 S.Ct. 524 (1917). In that case the Court stated:

And plainly, we think, [no state's] legislation is valid if it contravenes the essential purpose expressed by an act of Congress or works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law or interferes with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations. [244 U.S. at 215-16, 37 S.Ct. at 528-29.]

Courts and commentators have noted that the Jensen decision stands for the proposition that general maritime law governs maritime occurrences and that state law must yield to the required uniformity of the maritime law. Notwithstanding this principle of uniformity as a central theme, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed application of state law in a maritime context in several different circumstances such as to supplement admiralty law, to fill gaps, and in the very limited context of supplying law where there is no need to create an admiralty rule.

As an example, in Yamaha Motor Corp. v Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 116 S.Ct. 619 (1996), the Court allowed state wrongful death remedies to supplement federal remedies when a child was killed while riding a jet ski in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico. In many such instances, a complex, federal preemption analysis must be undertaken to determine whether state law may be applied.

Getting back to the basics, a logical starting point in the journey to understanding admiralty jurisdiction is to recognize that, generally, such jurisdiction extends to the seas, tidal areas, rivers, lakes, and bodies of water—if they are navigable waters of the United States. The concept of what is navigable has changed over time. It was once believed to be confined to the limits of the "commerce clause" of the U.S. Constitution. However, that is no longer true and instead the only limitations now are whether the body of water can (or could have been in the past) used for maritime commerce. One might reasonably conclude that there are very few natural bodies of water that do not fit that description.

The principal formulation of the test for navigability under admiralty jurisdiction came in The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557 (1871). In that case the Supreme Court stated:

Those rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. And they constitute navigable waters of the United States within the meaning of the acts of Congress in contradistinction from the navigable waters of the states, when they form in their ordinary condition by themselves, or by uniting with other waters, a continued highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other states or foreign countries in the customary modes in which commerce is conducted by water.

Recent decisions have extended admiralty jurisdiction to pleasure craft if there is the potential to affect maritime commerce on an interstate waterway system.

Determining the Baseline

Back to the more basic question of how does one know whether admiralty jurisdiction applies to a particular body of water, the starting point is determining where the baseline exists on a coast of a coastal state. Typically, the baseline is said to be the "low water mark." Most large scale nautical charts will show the state's baseline. Waters that lie inward from the baseline are within the state's sovereignty and are termed inland waters. All coastal states of the United States have an area seaward of the baseline whereby the state's jurisdiction extends seaward.

All states, except Texas and Florida, exercise state jurisdiction one marine league, or approximately 3 miles, past the baseline. For Texas and Florida, this area is 3 marine leagues, or between 9 and 10 miles from the baseline. The area seaward of the baseline and within a state's jurisdiction is referred to a state's "territorial waters." Inland waters and state territorial waters are areas of overlapping state and admiralty jurisdiction when a waterway is a navigable waterway of the United States.

By international law, a nation is accorded sovereignty over the waters extending 12 miles from the coastal baseline. For a total of 24 miles from the coastal baseline, again pursuant to international law, a nation may enforce a contiguous zone whereby certain customs, laws, and regulations may be enforced.

Finally, for 200 miles out from the coastal baseline, a nation may enforce, as does the United States, an exclusive economic zone. By international law, the nation may exercise sovereign rights over minerals on the subsoil and in the seabed and over living resources in such waters.

The exclusive economic zone may be extended as regards the seabed and subsoil to the edge of the Continental margin, or 200 miles, whichever is greater, but no further than either 350 nautical miles from the baseline or 100 nautical miles from the 2500 meter isobath. If all of this makes you feel fairly confused, your are not alone, as courts, scholars, and practitioners often struggle with the application of these rules.

Admiralty Contract versus Admiralty Tort Jurisdiction

Before concluding this article, it is important to understand the basics of admiralty contract jurisdiction and admiralty tort jurisdiction. In order to determine whether a contract is a maritime contract or whether it is governed by the laws of a certain state, one must look to the nature and subject matter of the contract. In general, three areas must be examined:

  1. Does it relate to the navigation, business, or commerce of the sea?
  2. Does it relate to a ship in its use as such?
  3. Does it relate to maritime commerce on navigable waters?

The vagueness of this test leads inextricably to a case-by-case approach by the courts. In the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the test is referred to as the Davis test. [919 F2d, 5th Cir 1990.] The Davis analysis requires first that one look to the historical treatment in the case law and then to a fact specific inquiry that must consider the following factors:

  1. What does the specific work order or contract provide?
  2. What work did the crew do?
  3. Was the crew assigned to do the work aboard a vessel in navigable waters?
  4. What relationship does the work being done have with the mission of the vessel?
  5. What was the principal work of the injured worker?
  6. What work was the injured worker actually doing at the time?

For there to be maritime jurisdiction over a tort, the locality of the accident must be considered, whether there is a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity, and the potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce. In that regard, the Admiralty Extension Act, 46 U.S.C. section 740, extends admiralty jurisdiction for damages caused by a vessel even though the injury occurs on land.

While there are many instances in which the preliminary question of whether admiralty jurisdiction exists over a particular claim is clear-cut, just as many exist where a complex analysis of all facts must be made. Such an analysis often tests the most seasoned admiralty practitioner.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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