Actions in admiralty are governed by statutes, judicially developed norms of general maritime law and traditional common law rules. Although general maritime law is federal law, courts may apply state law when a specific legal question is not answered by statutory or judicially created maritime principles. However, state law shall not be in conflict with general maritime law. State courts exercising concurrent maritime jurisdiction are bound to apply substantive federal maritime statutory law and follow United States Supreme Court maritime jurisprudence. The extent to which state law may be used to remedy maritime injuries is constrained by “reverse-Erie” doctrine, which requires that substantive remedies afforded by states to conform to the governing federal maritime standards.
The saving-to-suitors clause was designed to protect remedies available at common law. Where a state court has concurrent jurisdiction with an admiralty court, under the “saving-to-suitors” clause, and the action is brought in the state court, the substantive law to be applied is that which would have been applicable had the action been brought in the admiralty court. However, as with maritime law generally, where there is a gap in federal maritime law, a state may apply its own law where not inconsistent with federal maritime law.
The Suits in Admiralty Act applies to maritime causes of action against the United States. The Suits in Admiralty Act contains a provision exempting vessels owned by the federal government or its corporations from arrest or seizure. The Act has created an action in personam on the same principles as those on which a proceeding in rem is based, and that election so to proceed does not preclude the complainant in a proper case from seeking relief in personam in the same suit. Under the Suits in Admiralty Act it is not necessary, in order for the admiralty court to have jurisdiction of a suit in personam on the principles of proceedings in rem, that the vessel be in the district where the complaint is filed, it being sufficient for the vessel to be in a port of the United States or one of her possessions at the time of the filing. Suits under the Suits in Admiralty Act are to be heard and determined according to the principles of law and rules of practice obtaining in causes between private parties.
The principal provision of the Public Vessels Act is that a libel in personam may be brought against the United States in admiralty, or the United States may be impleaded in admiralty, for damages and injuries caused by a public vessel of the United States, and for compensation for towage and salvage services, including contract salvage, rendered to a public vessel of the United States. Under the Public Vessels Act, the suit may proceed in accordance with the principles of an action in rem whenever it appears that, had the vessel or cargo been privately owned and possessed, an action in rem might have been maintained.
In the absence of federal legislation, deaths resulting from a maritime tort committed on navigable waters within a state whose legislation gives a right of action for wrongful death, admiralty will entertain an action for damages by those to whom the right to recover is given by the state statute. The Suits in Admiralty Act and the Public Vessels Act comprehend wrongful-death actions, as in general maritime law, against the United States.
Admiralty courts have jurisdiction in an action to foreclose a ship’s mortgage. Under provisions of the shipping laws dealing with Commercial Instruments and Maritime Liens, on default of any term in a preferred ship mortgage, the mortgagee may enforce the preferred mortgage lien in a civil action in rem. An action in personam may also be brought against a person liable for the outstanding indebtedness or any deficiency, either in a civil action in personam in admiralty or in an ordinary civil action.