Federal Jurisdiction in Recreational Boating Accidents

Transportation Law: Water Transportation: Personal Injury & Property Damage

When a recreational boating accident occurs, the first determination that must be made is whether a federal court or a state court has jurisdiction over a lawsuit that is filed with regard to the accident.

Article III of the United States Constitution provides that federal courts have jurisdiction over all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. The federal courts have original jurisdiction. This means that cases may originate in the federal courts and do not need to be the subject of an appeal. The federal courts have jurisdiction over damages or injuries to persons or to property that are caused by vessels on the high seas or navigable waters. The high seas are waters that are beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any country. Navigable waters include all waters that are navigable in interstate or foreign commerce. A body of water that is landlocked within the boundaries of one state is not considered to be navigable unless it is part of an interstate waterway system.

Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over in rem proceedings that are brought against a vessel. An in rem proceeding is a proceeding that seeks to attach the vessel itself. The federal courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over causes of action that arise under federal statutes, such as the Suits in Admiralty Act, the Death on the High Seas Act, or the Jones Act. Federal courts and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over in personam proceedings or proceedings that seek damages from a person, such as a tort or negligence action that is brought against an owner of a vessel.

In order for federal courts to exercise maritime jurisdiction over a maritime accident, the accident must occur on the high seas or on navigable waters. Historically, whether or not a vessel was involved was not the issue. The issue was whether the accident had a significant relationship to maritime navigation and commerce. More recently, however, the United States Supreme Court has held that federal admiralty jurisdiction is based on whether the accident had a disruptive impact on maritime commerce and whether the accident had a significant relationship to maritime activity.

Federal admiralty jurisdiction is not limited to commercial maritime activity. A recreational boating accident or an accident involving pleasure boats may be the subject of a federal lawsuit if the accident bore a significant relationship to maritime activity. Some courts have held that, because owners and operators of all boats are bound by the same rules of conduct or "rules of the road," federal admiralty jurisdiction exists regardless of the use, purpose, or size of the boats or the activity in which the boats are engaged. Other courts have held that federal admiralty jurisdiction exists when two pleasure boats collide on navigable waters, when a pleasure boat collides with a stationary object, such as a dock, or even when water skiers or swimmers are injured by a pleasure boat. However, those courts generally hold that the accident must be caused by a navigational error in order for federal admiralty jurisdiction to exist.

Even if a vessel is docked at a marina, federal admiralty jurisdiction may exist if the vessel is floating on navigable waters. However, federal admiralty jurisdiction does not include accidents that occur on piers, docks, wharves, or bridges.

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