Admiralty and Federalism in the Wake of Yamaha Motor Corp., USA V. Calhoun: Is Yamaha a Cry by the Judiciary for Legislative Action in State Territorial Waters?

By Lapp, David R. | William and Mary Law Review, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Admiralty and Federalism in the Wake of Yamaha Motor Corp., USA V. Calhoun: Is Yamaha a Cry by the Judiciary for Legislative Action in State Territorial Waters?


Lapp, David R., William and Mary Law Review


On July 6, 1989, tragedy and sorrow beset the waters near Humanco, Puerto Rico.(1) Natalie Calhoun and her family were vacationing in Puerto Rico with family friends at the Palmas Del Mar Resort.(2) On that ill-fated afternoon, twelve-year-old Natalie Calhoun rented a Yamaha "WaveJammer" and set out on a ride over the ocean waters.(3) Tragically, the ride did not go as planned and was cut short when Natalie's WaveJammer slammed into the side of an anchored vessel in the waters off of a hotel frontage.(4) The crash resulted in Natalie's death.(5) Weeks later, Natalie's parents, Lucien and Robin Calhoun, brought a suit against Yamaha in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and prayed for relief consistent with the Pennsylvania wrongful death and survival statutes.(6)

In response to the Calhouns' claim, Yamaha moved for a partial summary judgment arguing that the Supreme Court, in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc.,(7) created a general maritime law wrongful death remedy that excluded the application of all state remedies for wrongful deaths of nonseamen occurring within territorial waters.(8) The Supreme Court rejected Yamaha's reasoning and held that the state law remedies were available to the Calhouns.(9) This decision touched off a rigorous debate and turned one family's tragedy into a maze of conflicting doctrines and interests.

Since the decision, courts have grappled with Yamaha in an attempt to balance the federal desire for uniformity in admiralty(10) with the proliferation of applicable state law remedies.(11) This debate over federalism, though exacerbated in Yamaha, is by no means new to maritime law.(12) The discrepancy between the supremacy of federal law and the protection of local interests is rooted deeply in maritime law.(13) The debate has been acute, particularly in the context of maritime wrongful death cases. Over the years, the courts have acknowledged that states have interests with respect to tortious actions culminating in death within their territorial waters.(14) These interests include (1) the establishment of general rights and duties of persons and property within state boundaries,(15) (2) the police power to prevent pauperism and dependency on the state by survivors,(16) and (3) the control over "certain local regulations of a maritime nature."(17) These state interests are counterbalanced by federal interests, such as (1) the protection of commerce,(18) (2) the maintenance of uniformity,(19) and (3) the supremacy of federal legislation.(20)

Though all of these interests are important judicial considerations, the potential erosion of uniformity in admiralty draws the most attention in the aftermath of Yamaha. Uniformity has always been a hallmark of maritime law;(21) however, Yamaha has led a number of commentators(22) and at least one court(23) to undermine the necessity of uniformity as a guiding principle. Questioning the principle of a uniform maritime law is problematic for it implicates the following possibilities: a state statute of limitations supplanting the federal statute of limitations, a state right to a jury trial being enforced in federal court, and state theories of negligence applying in federal actions.(24) Therefore, it is necessary to wrestle with the plausible intentions of the Court's opinion and what they mean for the future of admiralty law.

The following pages survey the expansion of wrongful death remedies in admiralty jurisprudence, including the effect of the augmentation of state remedies on the principles of uniformity and federalism. The first section of this Note discusses the history of wrongful death and briefly describes some of the unique features of admiralty jurisprudence.(25) The focus then shifts to the decision in Yamaha and its implications for the future of admiralty law.(26) The second section examines the Yamaha decision, with the analysis centering on the seemingly expansive role of state law by focusing on whether the treatment of federalism issues in Yamaha resuscitates the holding in The Tungus v. …

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Admiralty and Federalism in the Wake of Yamaha Motor Corp., USA V. Calhoun: Is Yamaha a Cry by the Judiciary for Legislative Action in State Territorial Waters?
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