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Jury Trials as Affected by Official Identification of Claim as Maritime

In a civil action either party can demand a jury trial, whereas in an admiralty claim, no right to a jury is granted except as provided by statute.[i] If a claim is cognizable only in admiralty, then it is an admiralty or maritime claim for those purposes whether so identified or not.  If a claim under admiralty or maritime jurisdiction comes within the jurisdiction of a court on some other ground, then the pleading should designate the particular claim as an admiralty or maritime claim for the purposes of various federal procedural rules.[ii]

An admiralty case becomes a nonjury case, so long as the interested party asserts facts that establish admiralty jurisdiction.  However, if at all the claim is a maritime claim, it will not prevent a party from requesting a jury trial on a separate claim.  If a party fails to identify an admiralty claim, then the right to a jury trial is preserved through the saving to suitors clause.[iii] The “savings to suitors” clause allows a party to proceed under either admiralty jurisdiction or general civil jurisdiction if both admiralty and non admiralty federal jurisdiction exists.[iv]

In Smith v. Cliff’s Drilling Co., 562 So. 2d 1030 (La.App. 3 Cir. 1990), it was observed that a trial by jury will not be available in a suit on an admiralty or general maritime claim under federal law that is brought in state court under a federal “saving to suitors” clause, if the interested party has designated that suit as an admiralty or general maritime claim.

Although there is ordinarily no right to a jury in an admiralty suit, there is an exception to that rule based upon considerations of judicial economy when an admiralty claim is tried together with a cause of action upon which there exists a right to trial by jury.[v]

If there is both admiralty and diversity jurisdiction and if an admiralty proceeding is not specifically identified, then the court will assume that the party requires the application of the rules that governs civil actions.[vi]

However, a party can amend a pleading to add or withdraw a statement identifying a claim as in admiralty.  Thus, a party can choose a matter to be treated under admiralty claim to avoid a jury trial.  But, if the court feels that such amendment or withdrawal of a prior admiralty identification statement is purely tactical, then the court can deny an accompanying demand for a jury trial at its discretion.[vii]

[i] In re Complaint of Armatur, S.A., 710 F. Supp. 404 (D.P.R. 1989)

[ii] USCS Fed Rules Civ Proc R 9(h)

[iii] Romero v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 515 F.2d 1249 (5th Cir. Tex. 1975)

[iv] Bartel v. A-C Prod. Liab. Trust, et. al, 461 F. Supp. 2d 600 (N.D. Ohio 2006)

[v] Id

[vi] Island Queen Steamboat Co. v. Shearson Lehman Bros., 1988 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19487 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 26, 1988)

[vii] Bravman v. Bassett Furniture Industries, Inc., 64 F.R.D. 7, 10 (E.D. Pa. 1974)

Inside Jury Trials as Affected by Official Identification of Claim as Maritime