Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. constitution grants original jurisdiction over maritime cases to federal courts. All admiralty actions in rem come under federal admiralty jurisdiction.[i] Federal admiralty jurisdiction does not provide the right to jury trial regarding actions in rem.
Federal law introduced a saving to suitors clause in order to allow a party to pursue a remedy in a state court for a maritime claim when entitled to such remedy. The saving-to suitors clause provides jurisdiction to state courts in cases such as minor personal injury, cargo damage, or property claims, that could be resolved by common-law.[ii] Federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction in most admiralty cases. However, admiralty actions in personam can be initiated only in state courts.
The saving to suitors clause provides common law remedy to claimants with a right to jury trial in maritime issues. Therefore, the clause extends only to common law remedies. The clause does not extend to substantive law.
State courts have concurrent jurisdiction in all admiralty cases except for actions in rem. The saving to suitors clause authorizes state courts to apply state laws in admiralty cases. However, state courts cannot make substantial changes in general admiralty law.[iii]
Although substantive state law application is not promoted in admiralty cases, state courts can use state procedural laws in regulating admiralty cases. When a party files a suit in a state court in an action in personam in a maritime dispute, the party is bound by the procedural rules of the state. State courts provide claimants the right to jury trial in admiralty actions.[iv]
Generally, an admiralty claim filed before a state court in an admiralty matter cannot be shifted to a federal court. However, such a transfer is permissible when it does not cause any prejudicial effect on a claimant.[v] The claimant’s right to choose a forum and right to jury trial provided by the saving to suitors clause will not be affected by such a transfer.
An admiralty case before a state court can be shifted to a federal court only after considering citizenship and residence of a claimant.[vi]However, when a federal court lacks jurisdiction in a maritime dispute, the case cannot be shifted from a state court to federal court.[vii] When diversity jurisdiction is not applicable also, federal courts cannot remove a case from state courts in an admiralty case.[viii]
[i] Canino v. Londres, 862 F. Supp. 685 (D.N.H. 1994)
[ii] Stainless Steel & Metal Mfg. Corp. v. Sacal V. I., Inc., 452 F. Supp. 1073 (D.P.R. 1978)
[iii] Universal Oil Ltd. v. Allfirst Bank (In re Millenium Seacarriers, Inc.), 419 F.3d 83 (2d Cir. N.Y. 2005)
[iv] Parker v. Rowan Cos., 599 So. 2d 296 (La. 1992)
[v] Regan v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18172 (E.D. La. Nov. 12, 1998)
[vi] Demer v. Pacific S. S. Co., 273 F. 567 (D. Wash. 1921)
[vii] Isenhour v. Harvey’s Iowa Mgmt. Co., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14313 (S.D. Iowa Feb. 20, 2009)
[viii] Crawford v. East Asiatic Co., 156 F. Supp. 571 (D. Cal. 1957)