Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction extend to all cases of damage or injury, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable water. The law does not differentiate between injuries caused by vessels in water or on land and hence courts apply admiralty law notwithstanding the fact that the damage or injury caused by the vessel was consummated on land.[i] Thus, if a person is injured aboard a United States-owned or operated vessel, his/her case will fall under the Suits In Admiralty Act (SIA) or the Public Vessel Act (PVA). The Public Vessels Act allows legal action against the United States for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States. A public vessel is any vessel owned by or operating on behalf of the United States. All injury lawsuits under the SIA or the PVA shall be filed in the United States Federal District Courts. The PVA only applies in cases of injury occurring while employed by the government or on board a government-owned or government-operated vessel.
In order to attract admiralty jurisdiction, the injury or damage must have resulted from a vessel. Courts have interpreted the term “vessel” liberally and shall include “any structure used, or capable of being used, for transportation on water and predominantly characterized by movement, rather than fixity or permanence.”[ii]
Thus, any structure used, or capable of being used for transportation upon water, is deemed to be a vessel and courts consider the uses and capacities of the structure to be classified. The conclusion might be more dubious if the word “vessel” had been interpreted narrowly. [iii]
The purpose behind the construction of the vessel as well as the business in which it is engaged are the major determinant factors on the question whether a structure is a vessel under admiralty jurisdiction and the courts do not take into account the size, form, equipment, or means of propulsion of the vessel. An action against a vessel is an admiralty proceeding in rem and a vessel may be sued and made defendant without any proceeding against the owners, or even mentioning their names. Thus, “a vessel proceeded against is itself seized and impleaded as the defendant, and is judged and sentenced accordingly.”[iv]
Nonetheless, it is to be noted that a vessel in the process of construction will become a vessel in terms of admiralty jurisdiction only after its launching. Thus, a ship is born only when it is launched, and prior to launching a ship is a mere congeries of wood and iron like any ordinary piece of personal property and subject only to mechanics’ liens created by state law and enforceable in the state courts. From the moment the ship’s keel touches the water, the ship becomes a subject of admiralty jurisdiction and acquires a legal personality with competency to contract, and is individually liable for its obligations, upon which it may sue in the name of the ship owner, and be sued in its own name.[v]
The following types of structures are recognized as vessels for the purpose of admiralty jurisdiction: 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 fastenened to a river bottom and used as a work platform, derrick barges, scows, rafts, lighters (including those designated as pontoons), submarines, and car floats used as adjuncts to railroad transportation.
A vessel is considered to be a vessel in terms of admiralty jurisdiction, even if it is used for amusement or entertainment purposes. Also, an appurtenance attached to a vessel in navigable waters as part of the vessel itself is considered to be a vessel.[vi]
[i] 46 U.S.C. App. § 740
[ii] Reinhardt v. Newport Flying Service Corp., 232 N.Y. 115 (N.Y. 1921)
[iii] Reinhardt v. Newport Flying Service Corp., 232 N.Y. 115, 117 (N.Y. 1921)
[iv] Moses Taylor, 71 U.S. 411 (U.S. 1867)
[v] Thorp v. Hammond, 79 U.S. 408 (U.S. 1871)
[vi] Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206 (U.S. 1963)