Admiralty Jurisdiction and the Right to Trial by Jury

Often times I’m faced with the question of whether a jury trial can be obtained in an admiralty case, and whether admiralty cases must be filed in federal court. I was once trying a case in a federal district court involving an admiralty case, and an expert walked in the courtroom about to testify. He stopped with a look of surprise on his face, and asked how come a jury was deciding the case when it was an admiralty matter. I often get this same questions from attorneys unfamiliar with admiralty law.

A brief review of admiralty jurisdiction and the right to jury trial is the intent of this article.

With respect to admiralty jurisdiction, Article III, § 2 of the United States Constitution gives district courts the power to hear and decide “all case of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” Cases that are filed in federal court under the admiralty jurisdiction of the court are separated into two categories – what is called an in rem action which is against the vessel itself, and in personam actions which is generally against the vessel owner or operator. The critical distinction between the two is that an in rem action may only be brought in a federal court, and pursuant to the admiralty jurisdiction of the court. An in personam case may not only be brought pursuant to the admiralty jurisdiction of the court, but may also be brought “at law” if there is diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction present.

The modern day version of § 9 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, found in 29 U.S.C. § 1333, states as follow: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of: (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled to.”

The all important “saving to suitors” clause allows a Plaintiff proceeding in a maritime case against a Defendant in personam to either bring his claim in federal court under admiralty jurisdiction or, under the saving to suitors clause in a civil action which can be filed either in a state court or a federal district court if there is diversity or federal question jurisdiction present.

The effect of the saving to suitors clause is to allow the Plaintiff who has an in personam claim the choice of proceeding in an ordinary civil action in state or federal court, instead of being forced into the admiralty jurisdiction side of the federal district court, where there is no right to a jury trial.

With respect to the right to trial by jury, the seventh amendment to the Constitution governs the right to a trial by jury and generally affords no right to a jury for claims that are filed within the court’s admiralty jurisdiction. However, there are two exceptions to this general rule about admiralty claims that must be tried exclusively to the court. The first exception is where Congress expressly provides for the right to a trial by jury, such as the Jones Act, which grants a negligence action against the seaman’s employer. If there is a right to a jury trial under a statue, such as the Jones Act, any pendent claims that arise out of that same occurrence, even if they do not ordinarily have a right to a jury trial, will be consolidated for the purpose of trial and may be heard by the jury.

The second exception is when a claim falls within the “savings to suitors” clause, and the Plaintiff decides to move forward on the law side of the court based upon diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction. In such a case, a right to a jury trial will be present, as the case is not proceeding forward in the admiralty jurisdiction side of the federal district court, which does not allow for a jury trial.

Another potential trap for lawyers filing admiralty cases is when filing in federal district court if there is claim that is being brought within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal court, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h) requires that it be so designated. Once a Plaintiff designates the case being a rule 9(h) action under the admiralty jurisdiction of the court, the right to a jury trial will be lost. Often times a Plaintiff’s attorney will mistakenly designate a case under rule 9(h) when diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction exists, and the right to a jury trial is sometimes waived by this designation. One must be very careful when filing an admiralty action in federal district court.

This is a very brief overview of some admiralty jurisdiction issues, including the right to a jury trial in an admiralty case. These are complicated legal issues that frequently arise when filing admiralty claims.

Our maritime firm handles all types of maritime cases in both state and federal courts, and represents Plaintiff’s from all over the United States, and internationally.

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