Wednesday, September 7, 2016

In the recent issue of
Long Island Boating World magazine, Tim
covered legal issues that govern admiralty jurisdiction in a
boating accident. Although focus in collisions between vessels
tends to focus on physical injury, medical expenses, property
damage, and boat repair, a more fundamental issue may be
whether a court has jurisdiction to adjudicate an accident that
takes place on navigable or non-navigable waters. Tim covers
this in the article, Location of Accident Determines Admiralty
Jurisdiction...

In the real estate industry, there’s an expression that goes,
“Location, location, location” I’m not sure if a single word
repeated three times qualifies as an expression, but the fact
remains that we hear this as a response to the age-old question,
“What are the most important factors in buying a house?” While
people obviously consider many things in real estate purchases,
the point of the expression is that location is of paramount
importance.

This business of location is also a pivotal element in determining
how lawsuits involving boating accidents or other incidents on
the water are handled. In terms of location, courts look at
whether something took place on an open ocean, inland canal, or
other body of water. One might ask why it makes any difference,
as an accident that takes place in four-foot seas en route to the
Hudson Canyon can involve the same safety and navigational
issues as one occurring on the placid waters of a sheltered
anchorage.

It makes a difference because the law applies certain tests to
determine whether the door is opened to admiralty and maritime
jurisdiction. This was illustrated by an accident that occurred in
the quiet backwaters of a Texas canal. Someone had purchased
a new Fountain 35 Executioner with twin 425 Mercs. While
horsepower is irrelevant to the legal issues at hand, it piqued the
court’s interest enough to have them note the package was good
for over 78 mph.

The boat owner’s friend had come by for an inspection and test
run. He helped move the boat to the canal, where it had been
floated onto the lift and raised for cleaning. The friend stepped
onto one of the beams of the lift and it failed without warning. As
a result, he was struck by cables and other parts of the lift. He
fell against the lift and into the water, sustaining a broken pelvis
and other injuries.

The injured friend brought a lawsuit in federal court, but the
owner moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction. The argument was that the court did not have
jurisdiction to hear a case of this nature. Article III of the U.S.
Constitution provides federal jurisdiction over maritime law
matters, and this is codified in 28 U.S.C. §1333. It is also validated
in case law (Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law, 404 U.S. 202, 204
(1971), which holds that federal maritime jurisdiction exists
where “the tort (or “wrongful act” to use a more common term)
occurs on navigable waters and bears a significant relationship
to traditional maritime activity.”

The U.S. Supreme Court developed a two-element test to address
this issue, which is also grounded in case law (Jerome B.
Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527,
534 (1995)). The location element of this test asks whether the
tort occurred on navigable waters or whether the injury suffered
on land was caused by a vessel on navigable waters. Here, the
canal connected to a lake that emptied into Galveston Bay, which
connected to the Gulf of Mexico. The second element of the test
addressed the issue of connection. This is whether an incident
has a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce.

In its analysis, the court held this incident did have a potentially
disruptive impact on commerce because it felt that cleaning a
boat qualified as a traditional maritime activity. Therefore, the
court concluded there was admiralty and maritime jurisdiction
over the case. This shows that boating-related activities, though
clearly different in many ways from something like offloading
container ships in Port Elizabeth, can qualify as traditional
maritime activity. As such, the court gave the green light for the
case to move forward.

Ref: Hupp et al v. Danielson et al, United States District Court for
the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division, Civil Action No.
3:12-CV-00375




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