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JohnFulweiler_2012 Vessel lifts and state law


February 12, 2013

We all have those crystalline memories of certain life episodes. Maybe it’s wrapping a tow wire or a midnight grounding.

I remember when I dropped the bow of a yacht off a lift at a boatyard. It was an unpleasant moment, but thankfully there were no real consequences since we were still over the water when it happened. I recently thought of that moment when reading a brand new decision from a California federal court.

The court was wrestling with the fairness of a partial settlement reached in a case involving a yacht that was damaged during a lift. Against a background of which defendant is responsible to the other, the settling defendants asked the court for a determination that its settlement was made in good faith under California law. The parties opposing the motion clambered that general maritime law should apply, not state law.

The teaching moment is the court’s elegant pause to explain that in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, state law may supplement federal admiralty law on local matters. This can occur as long as state law is not in conflict and the application of state law does not interfere with the uniform working of the general maritime law.

Like that too small of a hex wrench you have to angle to make catch, the court's statement on admiralty preemption gives you a sort of general flavor of how most courts treat the issue.

Okay, so how did the court resolve the matter? It determined that the entire lawsuit was subject to diversity jurisdiction (as opposed to federal admiralty jurisdiction), it applied California law and found the settlement was in good faith.

Sometimes state law can supplement the general maritime law and, in the words of admiralty attorney Biggie Smalls, “If you don’t know, now you know.”

Underway and making way.

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