Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Clouding the Waters of Maritime Litigation

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Clouding the Waters of Maritime Litigation

Article excerpt


The United States Constitution provides that the federal judicial power "shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction."(1) Despite this grant, the federal courts have never had exclusive jurisdiction of maritime cases.(2) State and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction of some maritime claims.(3) In particular, state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction of maritime actions brought under the "saving to suitors" clause(4) or the Jones Act.(5)

The ability of state courts to exercise jurisdiction of maritime cases is significant to maritime litigation. State courts exercising personal jurisdiction of maritime claims may supplement federal maritime law with their own rules and remedies as long as the additions do not substantively alter that law.(6) A state remedy or rule impermissibly alters the substantive maritime law when it "works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law or interferes with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international or interstate relations."(7)

A controversy recently existed as to whether state courts exercising jurisdiction over maritime claims could deny defendants the defense of forum non conveniens, which allows a court to dismiss or transfer a case to a more appropriate forum, if one exists.(8) State rules prohibiting forum non conveniens dismissals in state court maritime actions sparked this controversy, in part, because such dismissals would be allowed if the same cases had been filed in federal court.(9) The issue was whether such rules were preempted by the federal rule.(10)

Until American Dredging Co. v. Miller,(11) courts were divided on this issue.(12) In American Dredging, the Supreme Court resolved this dispute by holding that federal law does not preempt state forum non conveniens rules in maritime cases filed in state courts.(13) Applying the Jensen test,(14) the Court reasoned that forum non conveniens is neither characteristic of admiralty law(15) nor essential for maintaining the uniformity of the general maritime law.(16) As a result, the Court concluded that state rules, which prohibit forum non conveniens dismissals in maritime cases, are permissible and do not alter the substantive maritime law.(17)

This Note examines American Dredging and scrutinizes the Court's rationale for holding that state laws which prohibit forum non conveniens are permissible. Part I of this Note summarizes the facts, procedural posture, and the Supreme Court's holding in American Dredging.(18) Part II analyzes the Court's holding(19) and, in particular, discusses how forum non conveniens is a characteristic feature of the general maritime law,(20) and how state rules that prohibit forum non conveniens hinder the uniformity of maritime law.(21) Part II further explores the impact that American Dredging will have on maritime litigation.(22) This Note concludes that the Court reached an erroneous conclusion in American Dredging which will negatively impact maritime litigation.


A. Factual and Procedural Background

In 1987, William Miller, a Mississippi resident, traveled to Pennsylvania to find a job.(23) American Dredging Company (American Dredging), a Pennsylvania corporation with its principal place of business in New Jersey, hired Miller to work aboard a tug on the Delaware River.(24) Shortly after being hired, Miller was injured while working aboard the tug.(25)

In 1989, after having returned to Mississippi, Miller sued American Dredging in Louisiana state court pursuant to the "saving to suitors" clause, the Jones Act, and general maritime law.(26) Based on the tenuous connection between Louisiana, the parties, and the facts of the case, American Dredging made a motion to dismiss the action under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. …

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