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A Legal Perspective 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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