Quick Overview: Admiralty & Maritime Law

by Robert Hegadorn

Admiralty & Maritime Law is a comprehensive body of American law dealing with ships  (vessels) and commerce conducted over bodies of water.  Included within the scope of admiralty law are concepts of contract law, tort law, labor law, and more.  The admiralty jurisdiction of American courts is specified in Article III the United States Constitution, granting subject matter jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases to the federal judiciary.  See U. S. CONST. art. III, § 2, cl. 1.  “Bodies of water” that may be subject to the jurisdiction of federal admiralty courts include, as you might expect, the world’s oceans, and other “navigable waters.”  These navigable waters include those waters that

are navigable in fact. . . . [T]hey are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce . . . [and] 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 such commerce is conducted by water.

The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. 557, 563 (1870).  This means that, potentially, any claim that arises involving your favorite recreational stream or lake may fall under the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts, if that body of water is “navigable” for purposes of interstate commerce.  Beyond this, admiralty jurisdictional issues can be complex, and require careful research.  In some matters, invoking a court’s admiralty jurisdiction is the only way a litigant can bring their action, and some types of claims are statutorily subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction (e.g., 46 U.S.C. §§ 31321-31330).  But in an appropriate case, a litigant can choose to take advantage of the “savings” clause of 28 U.S.C. § 1333 to seek remedies at law.  Litigants may seek to do this where they may, as admiralty claims generally do not have a right to a jury trial (see F.R.C.P. 38(e)).  Other special features of American admiralty law are limitation of liability (see 46 U.S.C. § 30505), and in rem jurisdiction over a vessel (a court may issue “arrest warrant” for a ship—not the ship’s owners, officers, or crew, but the ship itself—see F.R.C.P. Supplemental Rule C(3)(a)).

There is, of course, far more substance to American admiralty law then can be dealt with in a short blog post.  Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law students that have an interest in this field can find resources in the Library to aid their research into such matters, including the Library’s Admiralty & Maritime Law LibGuide.  Contact a Reference Librarian for further assistance in researching this complex, but unique and fascinating, area of American law.

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