Effect of Admiralty Jurisdiction Extension Act


The Admiralty Jurisdiction Extension Act provides that admiralty jurisdiction of the federal district courts extends to include “all cases of damage or injury to person or property caused by a vessel on navigable waters, notwithstanding that such damage was done or consummated on land.” [i] Consequently, admiralty courts have jurisdiction in cases where an injury was caused by a ship or other vessel on navigable water, even if such injury was occurred on land.  Thus, the Act has considerable impact on admiralty jurisdiction over subject matter.

The Act is meant to expand jurisdiction to include ship-to-shore torts and does not affect or amend federal or concurrent state jurisdiction of maritime torts.  Prior to the adoption of the Act, admiralty jurisdiction did not extend to injuries caused by a vessel to persons or property on the land and where the cause of action arose upon the land the state law was applicable.[ii]

Courts apply the Admiralty Jurisdiction Extension Act after determining the proximity criteria.  Accordingly, a party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 USCS 1333(1) over a tort claim must satisfy the location test.  The court applying location test will determine whether the alleged tort occurred on navigable waters, or if the injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable waters.  In addition, the court will also apply a connection test, in which the court assess the general features of the type of incident involved to determine whether the incident has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce.  The test turns on a description of the incident in question at an intermediate level of possible generality.  The court will then determine whether “the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity, which inquiry asks whether a tortfeasor’s activity, commercial or non-commercial, on navigable waters is so closely related to activity traditionally subject to admiralty law that the reasons for applying special admiralty rules would apply.”[iii]
In a suit against the United States for damage or injury done or consummated on land by a vessel on navigable waters, the Public Vessels Act, or the Suits in Admiralty Act, as appropriate, constitutes the exclusive remedy.

The Admiralty Jurisdiction Extension Act permit suits to be brought in rem or in personam according to the principles of law and the rules of practice obtaining in cases where the injury or damage has been done and consummated on navigable water.  Thus, the Act creates a twofold effect by making a concurrent remedy in admiralty available for an already existing action at common law.[iv]

Courts have held that certain specific violations dealt with under state law domain are not abrogated by the Act.  Accordingly, sea-to-shore pollution, which was within the reach of the police power of the states, is not silently taken away from the states by the Admiralty Extension Act. [v]  Courts have held that there is a “twilight zone” where state regulation is permissible.  Thus, where a federal agency conducted a hearing and concluded that the case falls within the federal jurisdiction, an appellate court makes its findings final.  And in the absence of such findings, an appellate court presumes state law is applicable.

Similarly, the Act does not pre-empt state law in situations involving shore side injuries by ships on navigable waters.[vi]

[i] 46 USCS Appx 740

[ii] The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649 (U.S. 1935)

[iii] Jerome B. Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (U.S. 1995)

[iv] United States v. Matson Nav. Co., 201 F.2d 610 (9th Cir. Or. 1953)

[v] Askew v. American Waterways Operators, Inc., 411 U.S. 325 (U.S. 1973)

[vi] Nacirema Operating Co. v. Johnson, 396 U.S. 212 (U.S. 1969)