The boundaries of subject-matter jurisdiction for the courts are defined in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The federal courts have played a leading role in formulating substantive rules referred to as the “general maritime law.” Pursuant to 28 USCS § 1333, the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil case of maritime and admiralty jurisdiction. This provision saves to all plaintiffs all remedies that might be available to them. However, there are some limitations on the remedies that plaintiffs may seek in state courts. The most substantial one being the action in rem that may be brought only in a federal court. The cases where the courts are required to exercise jurisdiction over maritime property can be brought only in a federal court.
In an admiralty action in rem, a vessel or other thing seized is considered as the defendant and, in an admiralty action in personam a person is treated as the defendant and personally charged with respect to some matter of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. In order to be a defendant in an admiralty proceeding, res, i.e. the property, need not be a tangible thing. The idea behind an in rem action is to provide a forum for deciding the rights of claimants and other parties in the vessel, and distributing the sale proceeds.
An action in personam can be changed into an action in rem through amendment. However, the processes as well as proceedings are different in actions in rem from actions in personam, and an appropriate decree for one might be needless or totally absurd for the other. An action in rem is available in case of a maritime lien.
The availability of a proceeding in rem does not depend on the nature of the cause of action, but except in certain cases, the claimant must have a maritime lien. In a maritime tort suit, an action in rem may be brought only if there is a lien against the property sued for the tort. Under the suits in Admiralty Act, Congress has decided to permit an action in personam on the same principles as in an action in rem. Whether or not foreign substantive law is applicable in such suits, is determined by the law of the forum since it is a procedural matter.
In an action in rem, if the property is within the territorial limit of the court’s jurisdiction at the time when the libel is filed, the specific federal district court has jurisdiction. Generally, jurisdiction of the property is obtained by a seizure under process of court. Where a stipulation is filed and the res is released, the stipulation is, for jurisdictional purposes, a substitute for the res. When property is released, the plaintiff’s lien is transferred to the security. A voluntary abandonment and release of the res will exhaust all rights acquired by the seizure.
An American court does not preclude an action in rem where the cause of action arises from an incident in the territorial waters of a foreign country and due to the reason that the law of such foreign country does not provide for a lien in similar situation.
Rules governing the availability of a proceeding in personam in admiralty were rescinded since the unification of the rules relating to admiralty and civil actions. Proceedings in personam are available whenever available in civil proceedings in federal district court.
Until and unless there are statutory provisions pertaining to foreign nationals, admiralty jurisdiction is not affected by the nationality of the parties. However, the court shall apply the doctrine of forum non conveniens or decline to exercise jurisdiction where it appears that it would be not judicious to exercise jurisdiction. When an injury occurs on a foreign vessel while on the high seas, and the nature of a cause of action is governed by the law of the flag, an American admiralty court can assume jurisdiction of a proceeding in rem, based on such cause of action against the foreign vessel while it is in an American port.
American admiralty courts will afford a remedy to citizens or subjects of a foreign country only if the courts of that country are empowered to give similar remedy to citizens of the United States. The Public Vessels Act provides that a foreign national may not bring a suit unless it appears to the satisfaction of the court in which the suit is brought that such government allows nationals of the United States to sue in its courts under similar circumstances.
The vessels actively in navigation or withdrawn temporarily, are subject to admiralty jurisdiction. In the absence of statutory provision to the contrary, admiralty jurisdiction is not affected by the nationality of the res in a proceeding in rem.
Maritime law ordinarily treats wharf boats, fishing boats, derrick boats, canal boats drawn by animal power while in a canal and taken in tow by steamers for river trips, canning barges, houseboats, yachts, floating bathhouses, dredges that are not stationary, barges, even though fastened to a river bottom and used as a work platform, derrick barges, scows, rafts, lighters (including those designated as pontoons), submarines, car floats used as adjuncts to railroad transportation and an appurtenance attached to a vessel as vessels. Air planes and sea planes are not vessels. However, a hydro plane is subject to admiralty jurisdiction as it is used on the sea, but not while being used as an airplane.
Structures attached to land are not generally treated as a vessel. Piers, bridges, wharves, docks, marinas, floating dry docks are not generally considered as vessels. However, there exist certain exceptions.
In terms of admiralty jurisdiction, a vessel under the “dead vessel” doctrine, which is permanently withdrawn from use for navigation purposes, is not a vessel. A ship while in a dry dock is considered as a “live ship’ and not a “dead-vessel.” While unloading or waiting to unload a ship does not cease to be a vessel. Even if a vessel is moored or docked with a gangplank or by other means, or in dry dock, such vessel does not cease to be a vessel or be out of admiralty jurisdiction.
Even if a ship is considered as a person, where the question of exemption on the ground of sovereignty is involved in an action in rem, the personality of the ship cannot be separated from the nation to which it belongs. The United States is not subject to admiralty jurisdiction where the consent of Congress is absent. Thus, a court has no jurisdiction to try an issue as to whether the government is the rightful owner of a public vessel claimed as its own. Pursuant to the terms of the Contract Disputes Act, Congress has waived the United States’ sovereign immunity from suits based on government contracts including maritime government contracts.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity contained in the Eleventh Amendment bars an admiralty claim against the state. In order to be exempt from admiralty process, a vessel must be engaged in a governmental function apart from being owned solely by the state or its agency. The exemption of American states applies to subdivisions as counties, but does not generally apply to cities.
It is a consistently recognized policy that a vessel in possession and service of a friendly foreign government is exempted from American admiralty jurisdiction. However, this exemption or immunity does not apply to a merchant vessel owned by a foreign government but in private possession. In order to exempt a vessel from admiralty jurisdiction, actual possession by the foreign government is required.
Congress may waive exemption and may consent to admiralty suits against the United States either in personam or in rem in specific case or in certain types of suits. A waiver is interpreted strictly in favor of the interests of the United States, although the intent of Congress should be given effect as far as it can be ascertained.