Federal courts are entrusted with exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty matters in rem. Federal law introduced a saving to suitors clause in order to provide common law remedy to claimants. The saving to suitors clause allows a claimant to pursue common law remedies in admiralty actions in personam before a state court. However, state courts do not have admiralty jurisdiction with respect to actions in rem.
Federal courts and state courts enjoy concurrent jurisdiction in admiralty cases. General admiralty law is applicable to both federal and state courts. State laws are applicable in admiralty cases if there is no settled admiralty rule governing a particular maritime issue. State laws should not cause substantial change to the general maritime law. The advantage of a state remedy is that parties can have a jury trial.
Generally, a suit filed before a state court in an admiralty matter cannot be shifted to a federal court. However, an admiralty case before a state court can be shifted to a federal court only when it does not cause any prejudicial effect on a claimant.[i] The claimant’s right to choose a forum provided by the saving to suitors clause is not affected by such a transfer.
When a cause of action in an admiralty case under general maritime law comes before a state court, the case cannot be removed to a federal court without considering the citizenship and residence of a claimant.[ii] Such cases cannot be removed from a state court without considering citizenship and residence of a claimant because those cases do not arise from the U.S. constitution, treaties, or other U.S. laws. When an admiralty claim is brought in common law state courts or before federal courts by diversity jurisdiction, it is governed by general maritime law.[iii] A litigant bringing an action in federal court under its diversity jurisdiction has a right to trial by jury, even when the case is maritime in nature.[iv]
A maritime case brought in a state court is not removable to federal court when the federal court lacks jurisdiction on the subject matter in dispute.[v] When there is no diversity of citizenship also, a maritime case which is instituted in a state court under common law cannot be removed to a federal court. However, when a claimant has the required diversity of citizenship, a maritime case instituted in a state court following the saving to suitors clause can be removed to a federal admiralty court.[vi] The right to jury trial provided by saving to suitors clause is preserved even if the case is removed to federal court.[vii]
[i] Regan v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18172 (E.D. La. Nov. 12, 1998)
[ii] Demer v. Pacific S. S. Co., 273 F. 567 (D. Wash. 1921)
[iii] Powell v. Offshore Navigation, Inc., 644 F.2d 1063 (5th Cir. La. 1981)
[iv] Neal v. McGinnis, Inc., 716 F. Supp. 996 (E.D. Ky. 1989)
[v] Isenhour v. Harvey’s Iowa Mgmt. Co., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14313 (S.D. Iowa Feb. 20, 2009)
[vi] Crawford v. East Asiatic Co., 156 F. Supp. 571 (D. Cal. 1957)
[vii] Doucette v. Vincent, 194 F.2d 834 (1st Cir. Mass. 1952)