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When minimum contacts are required

A federal district court sitting as an admiralty court has general jurisdiction over all causes of admiralty.  The sum or value of the matter in controversy, or diversity of citizenship is not a limitation for an admiralty court to take cognizance.  Thus non residents of U.S. can also bring actions for claims under admiralty law.  However, when a non-resident brings such an action before an admiralty court, s/he must have sufficient minimum contacts with the district to satisfy due process.  Only upon satisfying sufficient minimum contacts, can a non-resident plaintiff be amenable to service of a federal district court.

The necessary extent of these contacts varies depending on the degree to which the contacts relate to the actual cause of action.  In appropriate cases, minimum contacts can be a single contact; or even just a  history of doing business in the state.

When an action is brought against a vessel, the presence of a vessel within a district is sufficient to confer jurisdiction upon courts against the vessel.  However, if a vessel just happened to dock in the jurisdiction of an admiralty court after being in the  stream of commerce, a claimant cannot  claim personal jurisdiction based on that fact alone.

However, for a claim against a vessel owned by a non-resident owner, in rem proceeding can be brought against the vessel itself.  In such cases, whether the vessel owner had sufficient minimum contact with the district to support in personam jurisdiction over the owner is not relevant.

In maritime attachment cases, some courts have held that minimum contacts are not relevant.  Also in case of an arrest in rem minimum contacts are not considered relevant.  However, some courts have disagreed to the above and have found minimum contacts necessary.

Rules that determine minimum contacts under admiralty law and civil law are different.  For some courts a party’s general contact with the U.S. is sufficient compared to contacts with a particular state/district.  This is called the national contacts test.  But some states have rejected the national contact test when process is in personam rather than quasi in rem, as the process of service is based upon state long-arm practice.

When a plaintiff relies on a state long-arm statute, and an admiralty claim is brought before the federal court, the minimum contact test is to be applied.  Courts have used a two-step analysis to resolve personal jurisdiction disputes in admiralty cases.[i]

  • First, a court determines whether the state’s long-arm statute is applicable.
  • Second, a court determines whether the statute’s application will violate the due process clause of the U.S. constitution.

[i] Bashaw v. Belz Hotel Management Co., 872 F. Supp. 323 (S.D. W. Va. 1995)

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