In the current issue of Long Island Boating World, Tim covers the
subject of admiralty jurisdiction. Whether we're looking at a boating
accident, cruise ship passenger injury, or Jones Act commercial
seaman injured on the job in the course of employment aboard a
vessel, the crucial issue is always one of jurisdiction. This holds
true for a federal district or circuit court under the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure or a state court under state civil procedure rules.
Does a court have authority to hear a lawsuit that arises on
by Tim Akpinar
One of the interesting things about the marine legal field is that it
covers so many different settings. For someone in the claims
department of a shipping company, the routine could appear cookie-
cutter in nature, dealing with endless boxloads of cargo damage
claim files. After the thousandth one, the files start to look like one
another, the common narrative being salt water damaging paper or
textiles during a container ship’s ocean voyage.
The legal department of a cruise line could deal with matters that
seem more tumultuous, such as innocent cruise ship passengers
suing after getting injured in a melee during a karaoke night or trivia
night fueled by too much alcohol. And a judge presiding over
marine salvage cases might never get bored, witnessing
arguments about how much money should be awarded to
commercial tugs that pull imperiled vessels off submerged rocks.
Big bucks could be at stake over the percentages granted to the
tugs when the vessels saved are $2 million Azimuts or $3 million
Depending on what corner of the marine field one works in, the
subject matter could be exciting or mundane. But overall, the work
is usually interesting, when you consider the fact that maritime
cases can come from so many different locations, from offshore
rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to ore carriers in the St. Lawrence Seaway
to tankers in the Strait of Malacca. One issue that confronts virtually
everyone in the marine legal field is the issue of jurisdiction. After
all, if you don’t have jurisdiction over a case, everything else is
immaterial. Having jurisdiction basically means a court has the
authority to hear a case and apply maritime law.
In maritime lawsuits, this hinges on whether the waters where an
incident or dispute arose are considered navigable. What does that
element of navigability involve? It doesn’t necessarily mean that a
100,000-ton aircraft carrier like the U.S.S. Nimitz needs to be able to
transit the body of water. But it does require that interstate travel be
possible. This is sometimes expressed as “interstate nexus.” The
concept of navigable waters can also be defined by legislation, as
in state navigation laws.
The test for enabling interstate commerce seems straightforward
enough when it comes to major bodies of water. Coastlines, rivers,
sounds, and bays generally pass this test easily. It’s when you get
to smaller and more isolated bodies of water that things become
The issue came up in a case involving a jet ski on Lake Lyndon B.
Johnson, more commonly referred to as Lake LBJ. Historians
might point out that those initials also belonged to First Lady Lady
Bird Johnson and First Daughters Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci
Baynes Johnson. At any rate, someone found a jet ski on the lake.
The finder asserted a salvage claim for $3,000, half the value of the
jet ski. Salvage claims are well-recognized feature of maritime law.
The words “marine salvage” might bring to mind something like the
powerful tug Pacific desperately trying to prevent the tanker Amoco
Cadiz from grounding on a reef off the Brittany coast in heavy seas
during a gale in March 1978. But salvage could take place on the
most placid of waters.
The finder of the jet ski took the position that admiralty jurisdiction
should apply here. The district court took the position it shouldn’t
because Lake LBJ was landlocked. It was situated in a single state.
There were dams at both ends and these were impassible. The
district court dismissed the case on this issue of jurisdiction. Upon
appeal, the higher court reviewed the decision.
The higher court looked at another case involving an inland body of
water. It involved a reservoir in Louisiana where travel would have
also been blocked by dams. Because those features prevented
interstate travel, the court in the Louisiana case ruled that the
reservoir could not be considered navigable waters. Similarly, the
higher court here ruled that Lake LBJ was not part of any waterway
through which interstate travel would have been possible. It upheld
the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case for lack of
jurisdiction. This shows that while people could be ready to present
many interesting arguments about their case, a court must first be
willing to hear the case.
Best wishes to all of you for a happy holiday and wonderful new
Ref: Macgowan v. Cox, Shyrock, No. 1:11-CV-22 Appeal from the U.
S. District Court for the Western District of Texas
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