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Legal Perspective - Admiralty Jurisdiction

November 7, 2018

One of the interesting things about the marine legal field is that it covers so many different settings. For someone in the claims department of a shipping company, the routine could appear cookie-cutter in nature, dealing with endless box loads of cargo damage claim files. After the thousandth one, the files start to look like one another, the common narrative being salt water damaging paper or textiles during a container ship’s ocean voyage.
The legal department of a cruise line could deal with matters that seem more tumultuous, such as innocent cruise ship passengers suing after getting injured in a melee during a karaoke night or trivia night fueled by too much alcohol. And a judge presiding over marine salvage cases might never get bored, witnessing arguments about how much money should be awarded to commercial tugs that pull imperiled vessels off submerged rocks. Big bucks could be at stake over the percentages granted to the tugs when the vessels saved are a $2 million Azimut or a $3 million Ferretti.
Depending on what corner of the marine field one works in, the subject matter could be exciting or mundane. But overall, the work is usually interesting, when you consider the fact that maritime cases can come from so many different locations, from offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to ore carriers in the St. Lawrence Seaway to tankers in the Strait of Malacca. One issue that confronts virtually everyone in the marine legal field is the issue of jurisdiction. After all, if you don’t have jurisdiction over a case, everything else is immaterial. Having jurisdiction basically means a court has the authority to hear a case and apply maritime law.
In maritime lawsuits, this hinges on whether the waters where an incident or dispute arose are considered navigable. What does that element of navigability involve? It doesn’t necessarily mean that a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier like the U.S.S. Nimitz needs to be able to transit the body of water. But it does require that interstate travel be possible. This is sometimes expressed as “interstate nexus.” The concept of navigable waters can also be defined by legislation, as in-state navigation laws.
The test for enabling interstate commerce seems straightforward enough when it comes to major bodies of water. Coastlines, rivers, sounds, and bays generally pass this test easily. It’s when you get to smaller and more isolated bodies of water that things become difficult.
The issue came up in a case involving a jet ski on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, more commonly referred to as Lake LBJ. Historians might point out that those initials also belonged to First Lady Bird Johnson and First Daughters Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baynes Johnson. At any rate, someone found a jet ski on the lake.
The finder asserted a salvage claim for $3,000, half the value of the jet ski. Salvage claims are a well-recognized feature of maritime law. The words “marine salvage” might bring to mind something like the powerful tug Pacific desperately trying to prevent the tanker Amoco Cadiz from grounding on a reef off the Brittany coast in heavy seas during a gale in March 1978. But salvage could take place on the most placid of waters.
The finder of the jet ski took the position that admiralty jurisdiction should apply here. The district court took the position it shouldn’t because Lake LBJ was landlocked. It was situated in a single state. There were dams at both ends and these were impassible. The district court dismissed the case on this issue of jurisdiction. Upon appeal, the higher court reviewed the decision.
The higher court looked at another case involving an inland body of water. It involved a reservoir in Louisiana where travel would have also been blocked by dams. Because those features prevented interstate travel, the court in the Louisiana case ruled that the reservoir could not be considered navigable waters. Similarly, the higher court here ruled that Lake LBJ was not part of any waterway through which interstate travel would have been possible. It upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. This shows that while people could be ready to present many interesting arguments about their case, a court must first be willing to hear the case.
Best wishes to all of you for a happy holiday and wonderful New Year!

Ref:  Macgowan v. Cox, Shyrock, No. 1:11-CV-22 Appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas

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