Throwing Admiralty Jurisdiction a Lifevest: Preserving Jurisdiction for Maritime Torts That Do Not Involve Vessels

By Thoele, Monica | Boston College Law Review, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Throwing Admiralty Jurisdiction a Lifevest: Preserving Jurisdiction for Maritime Torts That Do Not Involve Vessels


Thoele, Monica, Boston College Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Robert Duplechin and Terry Lee Sinclair both enjoyed recreational SCUBA diving.1 During one such dive, both Duplechin and Sinclair contracted "the bends"-a common diver ailment-allegedly due to negligent instruction and care.2 Duplechin sued the dive shop that taught him how to dive,3 and Sinclair sued the vessel that brought him to the dive location.4 Despite having similar claims, the federal court hearing Duplechin's case denied admiralty jurisdiction,5 whereas the federal court hearing Sinclair's case granted jurisdiction.6

The inequitable discrepancy between Duplechin's and Sinclair's cases is not uncommon under some lower federal courts' improper application of the Su- preme Court's and Congress's guidelines for establishing admiralty jurisdiction.7 Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction to resolve admiralty disputes.8 The current test for establishing admiralty jurisdiction for in personam tort suits, as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress, does not require a vessel to be involved in the tort.9 Rather, the current test for admiralty jurisdiction includes both a location and a connection element.10 To satisfy the location element, the tort must occur on navigable water, or, if the injury occurred on land, then a vessel on navigable water must have caused the injury.11 To satisfy the connection element, the tort must be of the type that could potentially disrupt maritime commerce, and the type of activity that gave rise to the tort must bear a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activities.12 Astrict application of this test may have granted Duplechin jurisdiction.13 Nevertheless, despite a vessel not being required for admiralty jurisdiction, many lower courts, like the court hearing Duplechin's suit, have started to insist that the tort involve a vessel to establish admiralty jurisdiction.14

This Note examines the consequences of introducing a vessel requirement to the admiralty jurisdiction test and argues that such a requirement undermines admiralty jurisdiction's purpose.15 Part I describes admiralty jurisdiction's purpose and development into its current two-part test.16 Part II then examines how some lower courts have abandoned a strict application of this two-part test in favor of a vessel requirement test.17 Finally, Part III explains that requiring a vessel inadequately fulfills admiralty jurisdiction's purpose of protecting maritime commerce.18 This Note asserts that a strict application of the current two-part test better protects maritime commerce than a vessel requirement test and that Congress or the Supreme Court should intervene to prevent federal courts from requiring a vessel's involvement for admiralty jurisdiction.19

I. ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION'S PURPOSE AND DEVELOPMENT IN THE UNITED STATES

This Part discusses admiralty jurisdiction's role in the United States and how the Supreme Court and Congress have developed the current test for establishing admiralty jurisdiction.20 Section A explains that admiralty jurisdiction and admiralty law were created to protect maritime commerce because it requires special protections.21 Section B then describes admiralty jurisdiction's * * dynamic development into the current two-part test that includes both a locality and a connection element.22

A. Admiralty Jurisdiction: A Prerequisite for Applying Admiralty Law and Protecting Maritime Commerce

To sue for relief under admiralty law, a claim must satisfy the test for admiralty jurisdiction.23 This is because jurisdiction generally establishes a court's power to resolve a dispute,24 and thus, admiralty jurisdiction is required to apply admiralty law.25Admiralty law protects maritime commerce and its participants by governing conduct on navigable waters.26 If a court does not have admiralty jurisdiction, it cannot resolve a dispute involving admiralty law.27

Admiralty law was created to protect maritime commerce because maritime commerce was essential to the early United States' economy. …

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