Maritime jurisdiction embraces two classes of civil cases:
- Acts or injuries done upon navigable waters.
- Acts or injuries purely maritime, and touching rights and duties pertaining to commerce and navigation.[i]
Admiralty jurisdiction is restricted to contracts, claims, and services which are purely maritime. Under federal law, a seaman is entitled to sue his/her employer for negligence pursuant to the Jones Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 688. The term seaman in admiralty cases is described in terms of the employee’s connection to a vessel in navigation. However, it does not mean that an individual must aid in navigation to qualify as a seaman. A seaman’s duty must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission in order for him/her to achieve seaman status.[ii] To support a cause of action for a maritime tort that falls within admiralty jurisdiction, a party must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity. The alleged negligence must occur on navigable water and the wrong must bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.[iii]
In Grand Banks Fishing Co. v. Styron, 114 F. Supp. 1 (D. Me. 1953), a purchaser entered into a written contract with a seller for the purchase and sale of a fishing vessel. Prior to the purchase, the purchaser had no opportunity to survey the vessel. The seller warranted in the contract that the vessel was free from any major defect. The purchaser relied on the warranty and paid the purchase price. Upon inspection, the purchaser found many defects and incurred significant expense to repair the vessel, as well as loss of its use of the vessel during repairs. The purchaser filed an admiralty action. The seller challenged the court’s admiralty jurisdiction. The court dismissed the case for lack of admiralty jurisdiction. Court ruled that the contract, from which the purchaser’s breach of warranty claim arose, was not maritime in nature.
The question whether a contract is maritime or not depends on the subject-matter of the contract and not on the place where the contract is made.[iv] The admiralty jurisdiction in cases of maritime contracts depends on the nature of the contract, its maritime character, and not on the place where it is made or to be performed. Contracts for the carriage of goods and of persons on the sea or tide-water, whether within or beyond the limits of a particular state, are beyond maritime contracts of which the admiralty court has jurisdiction. Maritime torts, on the other hand, are all injuries, trespasses, and unlawful or injurious acts done and committed on the sea or navigable water connected with the ocean. Tortuous act’s character as maritime depends exclusively on the place where they are committed.[v]
The Oceanographic Research Vessel Act (ORVA), 46 U.S.C.S. §§ 441-444, precludes scientific personnel from recovering under certain statutory provisions, including the Jones Act. 46 U.S.C.S. § 444. Scientific personnel on an oceanographic research vessel shall not be considered seamen under the provisions of title 53 of the Revised Statutes and Act amendatory. 46 U.S.C.S. § 441(2) of ORVA defines scientific personnel as persons who are aboard a vessel solely for the purpose of engaging in scientific research, instructing or receiving instruction, in oceanography or limnology. One vessel may carry both a regular crew not covered by ORVA and a scientific team covered by ORVA. Vessels engaged in oceanographic research are operated by a crew that performs the duties usually assigned to seamen. These vessels also carry a complement of scientific personnel who are engaged in research and have nothing to do with the navigation or maintenance of the vessel. When determining an individual’s status, the essential inquiry concerns the individual’s basic purpose on board the vessel. Performance of seamen’s functions or other manual tasks, if incidental to one’s primary scientific research duties, will not change an individual’s designation from scientific personnel to seaman.[vi]
For a contract to be a maritime contract, the contract should concern to transportation by sea; relate to navigation or maritime employment; or be a contract of navigation and commerce on navigable waters. The rule is settled that contracts for building a ship, or contracts for selling a ship, are not maritime contracts within the jurisdiction of the admiralty. Thus, jurisdiction of the admiralty courts is restricted to maritime subjects.[vii]
[i]Steam.Nav. Co. v. Gallagher, 282 F. 171 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1922)
[ii]Mitola v. Johns Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics lab., 839 F. Supp. 351 (D. Md. 1993)
[iii]Matthews v. Commonwealth, 253 Va. 180 (Va. 1997)
[iv]Netherlands American Steam Nav. Co. v. Gallagher, 282 F. 171 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1922)
[v]In re Long Island N. S. Pass. & Freight Transp. Co., 5 F. 599 (D.N.Y. 1881)
[vi]Mitola v. Johns Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics Lab., 839 F. Supp. 351 (D. Md. 1993)
[vii]Grand Banks Fishing Co. v. Styron, 114 F. Supp. 1 (D. Me. 1953)