Say I’m in the galley slinging insults of the defamatory kind to a gathered crowd – tearing someone down all based on made-up “facts.” Can a defamation claim arise under admiralty law if you’re at sea and someone damages your reputation? Is such a claim actionable in your homeport federal court under an admiralty jurisdiction?

It depends. A party seeking to invoke a court’s admiralty and maritime jurisdiction for what legal scholars like me (tongue firmly in cheek) refer to as a “tort” – as opposed to a breach of contract action – must satisfy conditions of both locality and connection with a maritime activity. The locality aspect requires that the wrongful act occurred on a navigable body of water or that the injury on land arose by way of a vessel on navigable waters.

Thereafter, the “connection” test devolves into two basic considerations. First, do the general features of the wrongful act have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce? Second, does the general nature of the wrongful act have a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity?

There was a case in which someone took some allegedly defamatory photos of a person aboard a boat and then purportedly distributed these photos when he got back to shore. The court undertook an analysis to determine whether the fellow’s defamation claim would float on the admiralty raft using the very elements we’ve highlighted. The court didn’t have to drift too far into the facts to determine it lacked admiralty jurisdiction. While it recognized state laws differ on the issue, it treated the defamation claim as arising at the time of publication which, in this case, occurred when the pictures were shown to third parties back on dry land. Thus, the claimant couldn’t establish the locality element of the test because the wrongful act (showing the pictures) didn’t occur on navigable waters.

Who cares, right? Well, establishing the existence of admiralty jurisdiction can help you gain access to the federal court instead of the small-town court where the defendant could have deep roots. Maybe you want to take advantage of the unique processes and procedures of the admiralty court. The point is that jurisdictional questions can have a real influence on the outcome of a claim.

Tinker, tailor, soldier or spy, what you say and where you say it will all play into whether a defamation claim floats.

Underway and making way.


This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of WorkBoat.

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