CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Admiralty and Maritime Cases.—Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction comprises two types of cases: (1) those involving acts committed on the high seas or other navigable waters, and (2) those involving contracts and transactions connected with shipping employed on the seas or navigable waters. In the first category, which includes prize cases and torts, injuries, and crimes committed on the high seas, jurisdiction is determined by the locality of the act, while in the second category subject matter is the primary determinative factor.761 Specifically, contract cases include suits by seamen for wages,762 cases arising out of marine insurance policies,763 actions for towage764 or pilotage765 charges, actions on bottomry or respondentia bonds,766 actions for repairs on a vessel[p.733]already used in navigation,767 contracts of affreightment,768 compensation for temporary wharfage,769 agreements of consortship between the masters of two vessels engaged in wrecking,770 and surveys of damaged vessels.771 That is, admiralty jurisdiction “extends to all contracts, claims and services essentially maritime.”772 But the courts have never enunciated an unambiguous test which would enable one to determine in advance whether a given case is a maritime one or not.773 “The boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction over contracts—as opposed to torts or crimes—being conceptual rather than spatial, have always been difficult to draw. Precedent and usage are helpful insofar as they exclude or include certain common types of contract. . . .”774

Maritime torts include injuries to persons,775 damages to property arising out of collisions or other negligent acts,776 and violent dispossession of property.777 The Court has expresed a willingness to “recogniz[e] products liability, including strict liability, as part of the general maritime law.”778 Unlike contract cases, maritime tort jurisdiction historically depended exclusively upon the commission[p.734]of the wrongful act upon navigable waters, regardless of any connection or lack of connection with shipping or commerce.779 The Court has now held, however, that in addition to the requisite situs a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity must exist in order for the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts to be invoked.780 Both the Court and Congress have created exceptions to the situs test for maritime tort jurisdiction to extend landward the occasions for certain connected persons or events to come within admiralty, not without a little controversy.781

From the earliest days of the Republic, the federal courts sitting in admiralty have been held to have exclusive jurisdiction of prize cases.782 Also, in contrast to other phases of admiralty jurisdiction, prize law as applied by the British courts continued to provide the basis of American law so far as practicable,783 and so far[p.735]as it was not modified by subsequent legislation, treaties, or executive proclamations. Finally, admiralty and maritime jurisdiction comprises the seizure and forfeiture of vessels engaged in activities in violation of the laws of nations or municipal law, such as illicit trade,784 infraction of revenue laws,785 and the like.786


761 DeLovio v. Boit, 7 Cas.418,444 (No.3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); Waring v. Clarke, 5 How. (46 U.S.) 441 (1847).
762 Sheppard v. Taylor, 5 Pet. (30 U.S.) 675, 710 (1831). A seaman employed by the Government making a claim for wages cannot proceed in admiralty but must bring his action under the Tucker Act in the Court of Claims or in the district court if his claim does not exceed $10,000. Amell v. United States, 384 U.S. 158 (1966). In Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961), an oral agreement between a seaman and a shipowner whereby the latter in consideration of the seaman’s forbearance to press his maritime right to maintenance and cure promised to assume the consequences of improper treatment of the seaman at a Public Health Service Hospital was held to be a maritime contract. See also Archawski v. Hanioti, 350 U.S. 532 (1956).
763 Insurance Co. v. Dunham, 11 Wall. (78 U.S.) 1, 31 (1871); Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955). Whether admiralty jurisdiction exists if the vessel is not engaged in navigation or commerce when the insurance claim arises is open to question. Jeffcott v. Aetna Ins. Co., 129 F. 2d 582 (2d Cir.), cert. den., 317 U.S. 663 (1942). Contracts and agreements to procure marine insurance are outside the admiralty jurisdiction. Compagnie Francaise De Navigation A Vapeur v. Bonnasse, 19 F. 2d 777 (2d Cir., 1927).
764 Knapp, Stout & Co. v. McCaffrey, 177 U.S. 638 (1900). For recent Court difficulties with exculpatory features of such contracts, see Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp., 349 U.S. 85 (1955); Boston Metals Co. v. The Winding Gulf, 349 U.S. 122 (1955); United States v. Nielson, 349 U.S. 129 (1955); Southwestern Sugar & Molasses Co. v. River Terminals Corp., 360 U.S. 411 (1959); Dixilyn Drilling Corp. v. Crescent Towage & Salvage Co., 372 U.S. 697 (1963).
765 Atlee v. Packet Co., 21 Wall. (88 U.S.) 389 (1875); Ex parte McNiel, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 236 (1872). See also Sun Oil v. Dalzell Towing Co., 287 U.S. 291 (1932).
766 The Grapeshot, 9 Wall. (76 U.S.) 129 (1870); O’Brien v. Miller, 168 U.S. 287 (1897); The Aurora, 1 Wheat. (14 U.S.) 94 (1816); Delaware Mut. Safety Ins. Co. v. Gossler, 96 U.S. 645 (1877). But ordinary mortgages even though the securing property is a vessel, its gear, or cargo are not considered maritime contracts. Bogart v. The Steamboat John Jay, 17 How. (58 U.S.) 399 (1854); Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 32 (1934).
767 New Bedford Dry Dock Co. v. Purdy, 258 U.S. 96 (1922); The General Smith, 4 Wheat. (17 U.S.) 438 (1819). There is admiralty jurisdiction even though the repairs are not be be made in navigable waters but, perhaps, in dry dock. North Pacific SS. Co. v. Hall Brothers Marine R. & S. Co., 249 U.S. 119 (1919). But contracts and agreements pertaining to the original construction of vessels are not within admiralty jurisdiction. Peoples Ferry Co. v. Joseph Beers, 20 How. (61 U.S.) 393 (1858); North Pacific S.S. Co. v. Hall Brothers Marine R. & S. Co., supra, 127.
768 New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants’ Bank of Boston, 6 How. (47 U.S.) 344 (1848).
769 Ex Parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68 (1877).
770 Andrews v. Wall, 3 How. (44 U.S.) 568 (1845).
771 Janney v. Columbia Ins. Co., 10 Wheat. (23 U.S.) 411, 412, 415, 418 (1825); The Tilton, 23 Fed. Cas. 1277 (No. 14054) (C.C.D. Mass. 1830) (Justice Story).
772 Ex parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68, 72 (1877). See, for a clearing away of some conceptual obstructions to the principle, Exxon Corp. v. Central Gulf Lines, Inc., 500 U.S. 603 (1991).
773 E.g., DeLovio v. Boit, 7 Cas.418,444 (No.3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); The Steamboat Orleans v. Phoebus, 11 Pet. (36 U.S.) 175, 183 (1837); The People’s Ferry Co. v. Joseph Beers, 20 How. (61 U.S.) 393, 401 (1858); New England Marine Ins. Co. v. Dunham, 11 Wall. (78 U.S.) 1, 26 (1870); Detriot Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 48 (1934).
774 Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 735 (1961).
775 The City of Panama, 101 U.S. 453 (1880). Reversing a long– standing rule, the Court allowed recovery under general maritime law for the wrongful death of a seaman. Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970); Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1991).
776 The Raithmoor, 241 U.S. 166 (1916); Erie R.R. Co. v. Erie Transportation Co., 204 U.S. 220 (1907)
777 L’Invincible, 1 Wheat (14 U.S.) 238 (1816); In re Fassett, 142 U.S. 479 (1892).
778 East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, 476 U.S. 858 (1986) (holding, hoever, that there is no products liability action in admiralty for purely economic injury to the product itself, unaccompanied by personal injury, and that such actions should be based on the contract law of warranty).
779 DeLovio v. Boit, 7 Cas.418,444 (No.3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); Philadelphia, W. & B. R.R. v. Philadelphia & Havre De Grace Steam Towboat Co., 23 How. (64 U.S.) 209, 215 (1859); The Plymouth, 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 20, 33–34 (1865); Grant Smith–Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469, 476 (1922).
780 Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972) (plane crash in which plane landed wholly fortuitously in navigable waters off the airport runway not in admiralty jurisdiction). However, so long as there is maritime activity and a general maritime commercial nexus, admiralty jurisdiction exists. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (1982) (collision of two pleasure boats on navigable waters is within admiralty juridiction); Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990) (fire on pleasure boat docked at marina on navigable water).

Supplement: [P. 734, add to n.780:]

And see Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995) , a tort claim arising out of damages allegedly caused by negligently driving piles from a barge into the riverbed, which weakened a freight tunnel that allowed flooding of the tunnel and the basements of numerous buildings along the Chicago River. The Court found that admiralty jurisdiction could be invoked. The location test was satisfied, because the barge, even though fastened to the river bottom, was a “vessel” for admiralty tort purposes; the two–part connection test was also satisfied, inasmuch as the incident had a potential to disrupt maritime commerce and the conduct giving rise to the incident had a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

781 Thus, the courts have enforced seamen’s claims for maintenance and cure for injuries incurred on land. O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 318 U.S. 36, 41–42 (1943). The Court has applied the doctrine of seaworthiness to permit claims by longshoremen injured on land because of some condition of the vessel or its cargo. Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206 (1963); Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85 (1946); Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., 321 U.S. 96 (1944). But see Victory Carriers v. Law, 404 U.S. 202 (1971). In the Jones Act, 41 Stat. 1007 , 46 U.S.C. Sec. 688 , Congress gave seamen, or their personal representatives, the right to seek compensation from their employers for personal injuries arising out of their maritime employment. Respecting who is a seaman for Jones Act purposes, see Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 112Ct.486 (1991); McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337 (1991). The rights exist even if the injury occurred on land. O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., supra, 43; Swanson v. Mara Brothers, 328 U.S. 1, 4 (1946). In the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 62 Stat. 496 , 46 U.S.C. Sec. 740 , Congress provided an avenue of relief for persons injured in themselves or their property by action of a vessel on navigable water which is consummated on land, as by the collision of a ship with a bridge. By the 1972 amendments to the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, 86 Stat. 1251 , amending 33 U.S.C. §§ 901 –950, Congress broadened the definition of “navigable waters” to include in certain cases adjoining piers, wharfs, etc., and modified the definition of “employee” to mean any worker “engaged in maritime employment” within the prescribed meanings, thus extending the Act shoreward and changing the test of eligibility from “situs” alone to the “situs” of the injury and the “status” of the injured.
782 Jennings v. Carson, 4 Cr. (8 U.S.) 2 (1807); Taylor v. Carryl, 20 How. (61 U.S.) 583 (1858).
783 Thirty Hogsheads of Sugar v. Boyle, 9 Cr. (13 U.S.) 191 (1815); The Siren, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 389, 393 (1871).
784 Hudson v. Guestier, 4 Cr. (8 U.S.) 293 (1808).
785 The Vengence, 3 Dall. (3 U.S.) 297 (1796); Church v. Hubbard, 2 Cr. (6 U.S.) 187 (1804); The Schooner Sally, 2 Cr. (6 U.S.) 406 (1805).
786 The Brig Ann, 9 Cr. (13 U.S.) 289 (1815); The Sarah, 8 Wheat. (21 U.S.) 391 (1823); Maul v. United States, 274 U.S. 501 (1927).
Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next