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The Basics of Admiralty Jurisdiction

The body of law governing admiralty jurisdiction, or maritime laws, doesn’t necessarily apply simply because a vessel is involved or because an incident occurs on navigable waters. Instead, for admiralty jurisdiction to be triggered, there must be a specific combination of these factors. That is if an incident on the navigable waters of the U.S. occurs and it involves maritime commerce (for example, two vessels colliding, or the injury of a seaman on an in-service vessel). Both of these factors must be present to trigger admiralty jurisdiction. Additionally, if a contract concerning “the navigation, business or commerce of the sea” is involved, or a crime is committed on the high seas against a US vessel of a citizen, then it falls under the jurisdiction of admiralty law and may be heard in admiralty courts.

Cases involving marine insurance policy disputes are generally seen to be under admiralty jurisdiction, however, while Article III of the Constitution states that “the judicial power shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction,” through the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress granted exclusive original jurisdiction in civil cases in admiralty and maritime matters to the district courts.

There are instances where maritime cases may be handled by state courts. Federal law has introduced a “saving to suitors” clause that allows a party “to pursue a remedy in a state court for a maritime claim when entitled to such remedy. The saving to suitors clause provides jurisdiction to state courts in cases such as minor personal injury, cargo damage, or property claims, that could be resolved by common-law.”

In most admiralty cases, federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, however, state courts cannot make substantial changes in general admiralty law, while federal courts can. Further, while generally speaking, a claim filed before a state court cannot be shifted to federal court, the transfer may be permitted if it does not cause “any prejudicial effect on a claimant”.

For more information regarding Admiralty Jurisdiction and how it may affect your case, contact Friedman, James & Buchsbaum LLP, today.