In June of 2015, Elke Specker paid for a dive trip off the coast of California, where the dive boat drove her to, and while she was diving in the water to observe the sharks, she claims she was bitten by a mako shark. She sued the dive instructor, and the dive company, alleging that the instructor was drunk and negligently caused the shark to come directly to the diver, which then bit her. The dive boat company denied that the instructor was drunk, and even denied that the shark bit the participant.
The interesting issue was that the defendant in the lawsuit claimed in the federal court lawsuit that there was no admiralty and maritime jurisdiction over the case. A federal district court has jurisdiction over a case involving admiralty law and maritime law. If the federal judge agreed it was not a case falling within the maritime jurisdiction of the federal court, the case would have had to been refiled in a state court.
The test for whether a case satisfies the requirements for admiralty and maritime jurisdiction is a two-part test. The first is an obvious one, which is locality. If it involves navigable waters, locality will be easily satisfied. Here, the boat and the divers were in the water off the coast of California. Clearly, locality was satisfied.
The second part of the test is the part of the test that is most disputed in cases. It is the connection test. The incident giving rise to the claim must have some connection to traditional maritime activity. The interpretation of whether an incident has sufficient connection varies, and there have been some very interesting cases interpreting this requirement. Traditionally, the courts have been very liberal in finding maritime jurisdiction. In fact, I remember a quote from a very old case involving a discussion about maritime jurisdiction, where the judge said the courts have been so liberal in finding maritime jurisdiction that most likely 3 men in a tub, rub-a-dub dub, would satisfy maritime jurisdiction!
Here, the court correctly determined this was clearly within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the federal court, because a dive boat excursion is traditional maritime activity, clearly satisfying both the locality test and the connection test.
Issues of maritime jurisdiction, and other jurisdictional issues with maritime and admiralty claims can get very complex. The reason this became an issue is that the federal courts have limited jurisdiction, and in this case, the basis for their limited jurisdiction was maritime jurisdiction. The federal courts have been given original jurisdiction over such cases by the Constitution. Traditionally, most admiralty and maritime cases were filed in the federal admiralty court. However, over the years, an increasing number of cases that would fall within the maritime jurisdiction have also been filed in the state court under what is called the Savings-to-Suitors clause, which does, under certain circumstances, allow the choice of whether to proceed forward in state court or federal court.
The downside to invoking the maritime jurisdiction of the federal court is that you do not have a jury trial in federal court. Some attorneys not familiar with admiralty and maritime law do not know this distinction. They are not aware of an alternative basis for the federal court jurisdiction in a maritime case, and that often times the case can be brought in state court. It is important to explore these options so that a jury trial can be obtained if possible.
If you have been involved in a serious accident on the waterways, on a cruise ship, pleasure boat, diving excursion, or injured operating a personal watercraft, your potential claims will fall within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the courts. You should promptly consult with an experienced admiralty and maritime attorney to determine whether your case can be filed in court with a jury trial or if you will be limited to filing in the federal district court based on the federal district courts admiralty jurisdiction.
Our admiralty and maritime firm handles all types of maritime cases in both state and federal courts. Call our offices today for a free consultation.