An admiralty court’s jurisdiction extends to all navigable waters. Water is navigable when it is used as a highways for facilitating trade, travel and commerce in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. Thus, admiralty jurisdiction generally extends to actions arising out of navigation of the high seas, bays, inlets, harbors, and tidewaters. Also, causes arising out of the navigation of lakes and rivers also fall under the purview of admiralty law where such lakes and rivers are used for facilitating commerce between states or foreign countries. However, admiralty jurisdiction will not extend to “a body of water which is landlocked and located entirely within one state and where it is additionally impossible to travel by any type of watercraft from the lake to any other state, to the open ocean, or to any foreign country.”
Rivers and lakes are considered to be navigable when they form in their ordinary condition by themselves, or by uniting with other waters, a continued highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other States or foreign countries in the customary modes in which such commerce is conducted by water.
Whether the navigable waters are domestic, foreign, or parts of the high seas that belong to no nation are not relevant for the purpose of extending admiralty jurisdiction. However, recreational and sports activities like noncommercial fishing, pleasure boating or water skiing do not constitute “commerce” for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction.[i] Nonetheless, courts have held that “although pleasure boating is not itself maritime commerce, pleasure boat accidents have a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity because of “the potential disruptive impact [upon maritime commerce] of a collision between boats on navigable waters.”[ii]
Waters within the ebb and flow of the tide are considered navigable waterways. There is no need to prove actual or potential navigability in tidal waters.[iii] Admiralty jurisdiction over navigable waters extends to the ordinary high watermark. However, if the high watermark is crossed by flooding, it will not extend the admiralty jurisdiction. On the other hand, the fact that a river may be sometimes unnavigable does not impair admiralty jurisdiction over it. However, this does not mean that an otherwise unnavigable river can be brought under admiralty jurisdiction if its water level rises to navigable levels due to some extra ordinary condition.[iv]
International treaty may also govern navigability and the United States has not attempted to extend its sovereignty over persons or things beyond the territorial limits of the country.
Criminal maritime offenses are dealt with under a separate statute, 18 U.S.C.S. § 7 and 18 U.S.C.S. § 7(3), and the territorial waters of another nation are excluded from their special jurisdiction. However, jurisdiction under the statute extends to subaqueous lands as well as waters.
[i] Gault v. Modern Continental/Roadway Construction Co., Inc., 100 Cal. App. 4th 991 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2002)
[ii] Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (U.S. 1982)
[iii] Leslie Salt Co. v. Froehlke, 578 F.2d 742 (9th Cir. Cal. 1978)
[iv] LeBlanc v. Cleveland, 198 F.3d 353 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1999)