The July 19 sinking of a duck boat on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., that claimed 17 lives will likely result in years of litigation that could test the waters of admiralty jurisdiction.
The liabilities and potential rights and recoveries of those involved will be heavily influenced by whether any pending or future lawsuits are subject to the exclusive admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts, or whether claims may be brought in state court. How the complex legal issues will be handled will also depend on whether the legal actions will be subject to maritime or state law. The most fundamental issue to be considered is whether they are subject to admiralty jurisdiction.
The Constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction to the federal courts for claims arising in admiralty. However, federal legislation, known as the “saving to suitors” clause, also preserves litigants’ right to pursue remedies recognized under state law. These overlapping jurisdictional laws often present conflicts over whether a particular court can even litigate a suit and what laws are applied.
The main factor in whether and to what extent admiralty or state law applies is the accident’s location. To fall under admiralty jurisdiction and/or trigger the unique remedies of maritime law, it must be established that the accident occurred on “navigable waters” and that the underlying operations have a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity that can possibly disrupt maritime commerce.
Classifying a body of water as “navigable” has been disputed for decades. Over the years, courts have classified bodies of water as navigable if they are used or are susceptible to being used as “waterborne pathways for commerce and bear characteristics which would support trade and travel over water.” Typically, bodies of water that are used strictly for recreational watercraft will not be sufficient to establish it as “navigable” for jurisdictional purposes. Rather, more traditional maritime activity, such as the transport of goods and/or passengers, must exist.
The second factor of the admiralty jurisdictional test is whether the underlying activities have the potential to disrupt maritime commerce. In most cases, a vessel sinking, rescue operation or similar event are found to meet that test.
While it is too soon to tell what the extent of the legal ramifications of this terrible accident may be, this incident will undoubtedly test the waters of many legal issues.