Federal district courts have original jurisdiction over any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction. Initially, admiralty jurisdiction was based on the place of occurrence or locality and the courts generally inquired whether the wrong occurred in navigable waters. In Exec. Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (U.S. 1972), the court has added another dimension by requiring that the wrong must bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. In Exec. Jet Aviation, 409 U.S. 249, the court held that a helicopter being used in place of a vessel to ferry personnel and supplies to and from an offshore drilling structure is considered to be engaged in maritime activity.
In order to ascribe liability on vessels under admiralty law, courts generally apply the test of actual navigability. However, this is subject to the exemptions based on sovereignty. This means that only vessels actively in navigation or temporarily withdrawn are subject to admiralty jurisdiction.[i] A ship loses its status as a vessel under the dead ship doctrine when its function is changed.[ii] A ship is not considered as a vessel if it does not have navigational functioning capabilities. Thus, the mere fact that a vessel was involved in a controversy does not necessarily invite admiralty jurisdiction.
[i] Goodman v. 1973 26 Foot Trojan Vessel, 859 F.2d 71 (8th Cir. Ark. 1988)