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Legal Perspective

November 7, 2016

 

With the chill of winter in the air, the notion of relaxing in a warm sundrenched boat cockpit is but the stuff of memories now. Cabins that once welcomed guests seem cold and drained of summer’s bright colors as vessels are prepped for their hibernations. Yards are busy winterizing engines and applying shrink wrap. And soon enough, the holidays and a new year will be here.

Well, here’s a question that could bring back thoughts of warmer days and boating. What does it mean for something to be considered “navigable waters?” Throughout the region, we see many beautiful landlocked ponds in our travels. Clearly, those are not navigable waters, although it doesn’t seem to matter much to the geese waddling along their banks. The vast Atlantic beyond the breakers of Amagansett and Cape May… ‘definitely navigable waters. But why would anyone give a second thought to this seemingly obvious distinction?

Well, the issue of navigable waters is significant because it can determine if a federal court has admiralty jurisdiction to hear a case, whether in connection with a boating accident or other maritime incident. A federal court examined this issue of “navigable waters” in a recent boating accident that took place on a Florida canal.

The case involved a boat traveling south on Coral Park Canal. As the boat neared the Coral Park Canal Bridge, the four passengers on board ducked their heads. When it emerged on the south side of the bridge, one of the passengers raised his head and was hit by a water pipe. The impact knocked him out of the boat and into the canal. He sustained serious injuries and sued the County for negligence. However, the court dismissed the lawsuit based on subject-matter jurisdiction, holding that admiralty jurisdiction only extends to waters that are navigable in interstate commerce. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court revisited the lower court’s decision.

Before examining the opinion of the appeals court, let’s take a closer look at the geography of the waterway and its man-made features. The Coral Park Canal is a drainage canal in Miami-Dade County. It joins the Tamiami Canal at SW 94th Ave and SW 8th Street, which forms a low bridge over the canal at the intersection. Tamiami Canal extends eastward past Miami International Airport and connects to the Miami River. The Miami River runs to Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Along Tamiami Canal are additional low-lying bridges, water pipes, and railroad tracks that partially obstruct the waterway. These are fixed bridges that do not open for vessel traffic. Toward the eastern end of the canal, there is a water control structure that prevents navigation to the Miami River. A sign next to the structure reads, “DANGER - NO BOATING BEYOND THIS POINT.”

When it was sued by the passenger, the County moved for dismissal of the case because the Coral Park Canal does not have a navigable connection to the Miami River, Biscayne Bay, or Atlantic Ocean. The lower court sided with the County and allowed the case to be dismissed.

On appeal, the higher court cited a 19th century case called The Daniel Ball (77 U.S. 10 (Wall.) 557 (1870), an excerpt from which read, “Those rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce…  ”

The decision went on to distinguish navigable waters of the United States from navigable waters of the States. Over a hundred years later, this principle is more succinctly outlined in Admiralty and Maritime Law §3-3 (5th Ed. 2015), by Thomas J. Schoenbaum, which provides a test for navigability based on two elements, which are that (1.) the waters must be navigable in fact, and (2.) have an “interstate nexus.” Thus in the Florida canal, the waters could not be used for interstate commerce. Upon review, the appeals court upheld the decision of the lower court to dismiss the lawsuit.

As is often the case in maritime law, the court visited court decisions that dated back many, many years in examining how prevailing legal doctrine came to be shaped. And as I look at the calendar, it appears another year will have passed before the next time we meet. So until then, I wish all of you and your loved ones all the best for 2017 and a happy, healthy and safe holiday season. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! Tim

 

Ref: Tundidor v. Miami-Dade County, United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 15-12597, D.C. Docket No. 1:14-cv-23850-CMA

 

Tim Akpinar is a New York based maritime attorney and has taught law at SUNY Maritime College.

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