When is Maritime Law Applicable Under Federal Law?

In many personal injury actions which happen on a boat or on the water, the value of the case and the way lawyers approach the case depends on whether maritime law applies. Originally, maritime or admiralty law was applicable when any claim arose upon the navigable waters of the United States. The Plymouth, 70 U.S. 30 (1866). However, several U.S. Supreme Court cases have changed this rule.

Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972): A plane taking off from a runway hit a flock of birds, lost engine power, and crashed into Lake Erie, sinking to its bottom. The plaintiffs sought damages under traditional maritime jurisdiction. The Supreme Court held that, for maritime law to be applicable, a court must find, not only that the action accrued upon or in navigable waters, but that the incident alleged in the claim bears a “significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.”

Foremost Insurance Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (1982): Two pleasure boats collided, resulting in the death of a passenger in one of the boats. The Supreme Court held that the collision was actionable under maritime jurisdiction because there is no requirement that maritime activity be an exclusively commercial one. All operations of vessels on navigable waters are subject to uniform rules of conduct. The Court held that “[b]ecause the ‘wrong’ here involves the negligent operation of a vessel on navigable waters . . . it has a sufficient nexus to traditional maritime activity to sustain admiralty jurisdiction.”

Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990): Fire started on a yacht moored at a marina, which destroyed the yacht, and damaged the marina and several other boats nearby. The Court stated that there are two essential prongs to the “nexus” test:
(1) that the incident caused a “potential hazard to maritime commerce” and (2) that the actions surrounding the incident bore a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.”

With respect to the “potential hazard” element, a court must assess the general features of the type of incident involved to determine whether such an incident is likely to disrupt commercial activity. In this case – a fire on a vessel docked at a marina on navigable waters – plainly satisfies the requirement of potential disruption to commercial maritime activity.
With respect to the second element, the Court stated that “activity” is defined not by the particular circumstances of the incident, but by the general conduct from which the incident arose. The relevant activity in this case was the storage and maintenance of a vessel at a marina on navigable waters. The need for uniform rules of maritime conduct and liability is not limited to navigation, but extends at least to any other activities traditionally undertaken by vessels, commercial or noncommercial.

Thus, the Supreme Court recognized that “examining an incident for the purposes of maritime jurisdiction is not to be done by subjecting the minutia of a case to the ‘potential hazard’ and ‘traditional maritime activity’ tests; rather, the ‘general’ aspects of the case are to be reviewed under the two prongs.” Matthews v. Howell, 359 Md. 152, 167, 753 A.2d 69, 77 (2000) (referencing Foremost Insurance and Sisson). Those tests are to be defined somewhat liberally. Id. A “potential hazard” may be hypothetical, but not fantastical. Id. A “traditional maritime activity” may include any maritime related activity, not just marine navigation. Id.
Summary of the Elements:
• Navigable waters of the United States (locality)
• Whether the incident caused a potential hazard to maritime commerce • Whether the actions surrounding the incident bore a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity

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