Admiralty courts exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries and offences. There are different types of theories under which various claims under admiralty jurisdiction can be brought. They are:
- Petitory and, possessory suits,
- All seizures and laws of imposts, navigation or trade of the U.S. where the seizures are made on waters navigable from the sea, within their respective districts as well as upon high seas,
- Claims arising under maritime contracts and maritime torts,
- Claims related to warranty of seaworthiness,
- Criminal jurisdiction.
A petitory suit is an action to try title to a vessel[i]. To bring a petitory suit, the plaintiff must assert legal right to the vessel. However, in a possessory suit, right to possession of a property that has been wrongfully taken is adjudicated.
Admiralty jurisdiction over matters relating to seizures depends on whether the seizure was made on navigable water or on land. When foreign goods are imported and brought into the country by overseas transport, claims regarding payment of customs duties on such items (imposts) are within the jurisdiction of an admiralty court. Similarly in forfeiture and penalty suits, though there is a personal penalty against the owners, vessel being the offender, proceedings are instituted against the vessel alone. Thus, proceedings against the vessel and the owner are independent of each other.
Maritime contracts include claim for wharfage, and dockage. Generally, wharfage and dockage claims come within admiralty courts. However, admiralty jurisdiction depends on whether the ship was taken out of navigation by use of wharf. If it is not taken out of navigation, a wharfage claim come within admiralty jurisdiction. A ship is not taken out of navigation, when the wharf is used only for restoration of the ship between two voyages.
Maritime torts are cases where injury, loss or damage is caused to a person or their interests by another party’s action or negligence. Maritime tort law has a very broad range of coverage as no malice or premeditation is required to designate liability under maritime tort. Damage to goods can and usually occur as a result of inadequacy of secure storage on the part of the carrier making them liable to face a claim for damages.
Admiralty courts have jurisdiction over litigation related to warranty of seaworthiness. Even though the shipment arose out of non maritime contracts, the admiralty jurisdiction is not destroyed in a libel loss due to unseaworthiness.
Under the US Constitution, admiralty courts also have criminal jurisdiction. Thus admiralty courts exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed on a U.S. ship in territorial waters of a foreign sovereign. This does not preclude a state court from exercising concurrent jurisdiction with the federal government over a crime within the territorial waters of the state.
An admiralty court may have jurisdiction of a proceeding in rem, usually against a ship, but also of a proceeding in personam. Ultimately, an admiralty court can exercise jurisdiction over rights purely arising out of maritime activity. The um or value of the matter in controversy, or diversity of citizenship is no limitation at all for an admiralty court to exercise its jurisdiction.
[i] Privilege Yachting v. Teed, 849 F. Supp. 298 (D. Del. 1994)