Maritime Rights & Remedies
There are a wide variety of claims and damages that affect the marine industry. It is important for those of us who deal in maritime matters to have a basic understanding of how maritime or admiralty litigation is managed.
Maritime claims are generally heard before admiralty courts which specialize in this type of claim. Under the Constitution of the United States, United States Federal Courts are awarded jurisdiction over cases of admiralty and maritime matters. The need for a uniform body of law controlling interstate trade resulted in the further development of federal maritime law. In Admiralty court, the matter will be heard by a judge without a jury. The loss of the right to a jury trial has cause many litigants to prefer to bring the matter before an appropriate state court where a jury trial is still available.
The General Federal Maritime Law of the United States is the body of law that both the state court and the federal courts will apply in resolving the disputes. A seaman bringing a Jones Act claim for personal injury or other claim may have a choice of bringing the action in a local state court or in a federal court. Much will depend upon his appreciation of the time involved and the comparable difficulty involved in the litigation between the two types of courts.
It must be remembered that a defendant when sued may have the right to remove an action from the state court to the federal courts. This is called "Removal" and merely means that if the federal court had "original" jurisdiction, then the defendant has the option of having a federal instead of a state court resolve the matter. The reasoning behind this is that it is generally presumed that a local court will favor a local person as opposed to another party from another part of the nation.
For an action to be brought in federal court the underlying events must have occurred upon navigable waters. Navigable waters refer to waterways used for interstate commerce and trade. This will include coastal waters, the high seas, navigable waterways such as the Mississippi. Lakes that border more than one state are also navigable waterways. It is essential that the waterway carry commercial traffic. If the waterway, although meeting other criterion, is used only for recreational purposes, it will not give rise to federal jurisdiction.
"Tort" is a legal term that refers to an act that results in damage or injury to another person that gives rise to a legal claim. Maritime "torts" are controlled by a variety of statutes. Personal injuries to sea men are regulated by the Jones Act; death claims are administered by the Death on the High Seas Act; The Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act relates to injuries sustained by longshoremen, stevedores and other harbor workers as a result of their employment.
These "torts" have one thing in common. They all relate in some manner to employment in, on, or around a vessel. The meaning of the term "vessel" has gone through a variety of interpretations. The vessel must meet certain conditions which variously have been described as being a device used to transport people or goods; or used in actual navigation. Barges or a fixed offshore drilling platform fixed to the bottom by spuds will generally not be considered to be a vessel . However, a drilling rig, capable of being moved to and from different locations by water has been held to be a vessel.
An essential question in every action is, "Where should the action be filed?" Many contracts contain forum selection provisions. These clauses generally state that if a dispute arises, the action "must" be brought in a certain court. This is commonly found on the ticket receipt for cruise ships and excursion vessels. These provisions are generally enforced. Otherwise, the forum must have a logical connection with the action and persons involved in the litigation.
There are three types of jurisdiction. First is "In Personam" which means that the court has power over the person involved. "In Rem" refers to the power of the court over certain property. In maritime cases this is generally the ship. Generally, in maritime litigation we are concerned about "In Rem" jurisdiction. That is the ability of the court to affect the ship involved.
In this type of litigation, the action is brought against the ship itself. To do this the vessel must be with the geographic confines of the federal court where the action is brought. If the courts decides that the complaint states a valid action, the court will issue an order for the vessel to be arrested by the United States Marshal and held for resolution of the action. Generally, the person bringing the action is responsible for the posting of a bond to secure the costs of the action to cover the losses the defendant may suffer, if the defendant wins the lawsuit.