Jurisdiction in admiralty law: What you need to know

Do you want to short circuit a legal proceeding? Simply raise the issue of “jurisdiction.” Jurisdiction is the keel plug in any lawsuit without which it sinks. However, few know what it means.

There are two kinds of jurisdiction. One type is where a court (or parent) has the authority to make decisions impacting your rights and is called “personal jurisdiction.” The other kind is called “subject matter” jurisdiction, which relates to whether the court has the authority to make a decision on a particular topic.

For example, in personal jurisdiction, your friend’s mother has the authority to tell you stop climbing a tree, but not to tell you to get a job — a bankruptcy court can only hear bankruptcy cases. Your friend’s mother had personal jurisdiction over you, but not subject matter jurisdiction when it came to employment.

A lawsuit’s facts are the sizzle, but jurisdictional issues can be just as important. Clients don’t always realize that in the law, procedure sometimes gives way to substance, which can be frustrating. Many lawsuits have foundered due to jurisdictional challenges, an issue you see often in admiralty law. Vessels and their owners may not be operating in the jurisdiction, giving rise to personal jurisdiction challenges. In other instances, a party may allege a lawsuit should be dismissed because it’s not an admiralty lawsuit thereby challenging the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

There are some peculiar quirks and rules when it comes to personal jurisdiction. In a recent Louisiana case dealing with personal jurisdiction over a foreign business, the business argued that it wasn’t a resident of the state and the court didn’t have personal jurisdiction. Reading the decision it looked promising for the business until the court started swinging around Rule 4(k)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This rule allows a court in a federal claim (like an admiralty lawsuit) to exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant if the defendant is served with a summons and complaint, and if exercising jurisdiction is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. The rule is designed for use against a foreign defendant who has a decent amount of contact with the U.S. to make it fair that they’re sued here, but not enough to vest any particular state court with personal jurisdiction.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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