Admiralty law is a body of domestic and international law that governs marine commerce, navigation, shipping, seaman, passengers and cargo, towage, wharves, peers, docks, insurance, and maritime liens. It governs territorial and international waters and deals with maritime questions and offenses. Admiralty law is also referred to as maritime law.
The U.S. constitution grants original jurisdiction in admiralty cases to federal courts in the U.S. However, most maritime cases can be heard in either state or federal courts depending on the “saving to suitors” clause. The saving to suitors clause states that claimants can seek their common law remedies in state courts only where there is a single claimant, or where the total claim does not exceed the value of the limitation fund.
An action in rem is a proceeding that takes no notice of the owner of the property but determines rights in the property that are conclusive against the entire world. In such cases, the ship and not its owner, is the defendant. In the U.S., jurisdiction in rem refers to the power a federal court may exercise over large items of moveable property located within the court’s territory. An action in rem can be brought in the U.S. to enforce claims against a ship. Such claims against ships are also referred to as maritime liens. An action in rem based on an admiralty claim is initiated by arresting the property which is subject to the jurisdiction of the court.
Generally, actions for breach of maritime contracts and actions based on maritime torts give rise to maritime liens which can be enforced by an action in rem.[i] Actions in rem can be initiated in claims arising from a contract of affreightment, claims for materials, supplies, or repairs furnished a ship, general average claims, salvage claims, seaman’s claims for wages, or claims arising from any maritime tort, including a cause of action for personal injury.
An in rem suit in an admiralty action should be initiated in the district where the vessel or cargo or tangible property is located. However, if the vessel or cargo or tangible property cannot be found there, a complaint can be filed in any district of the U.S. alleging that the vessel, cargo, or tangible property is located within the district during pendency of the action. A court will not acquire admiralty jurisdiction until the vessel or cargo or tangible property is located within that district.
Even though foreign substantive law is applicable in U.S admiralty court, a cause of action enforced by a proceeding in rem is a procedural matter and therefore is determined by the law of the jurisdiction where the action is brought.[ii]
[i] The Snug Harbor, 283 F. 1015 (D. Va. 1922)
[ii] The Belgenland, 114 U.S. 355 (U.S. 1885)