If there is an injury on board a vessel in navigation on the Chesapeake Bay or or one of its many tributaries, Federal Maritime Law will apply. In some cases, Maryland state law may also apply. Which body of law is controlling can be critically important because under maritime law, negligence is weighed under a comparative standard -- if the injured person is negligent, and the injuring person is also negligent, the jury will be asked to compare how much fault each bears, and apportion damages accordingly. In Maryland law, if the injured person is negligent, they can be denied all recovery through the doctrine of contributory negligence. There are many more subtle difference as well.
Which Court Can the Case Be Brought In?
If Federal Maritime law applies (and certain other conditions are met), the person that is bringing the suit has the choice of whether to bring suit in State or Federal Court. If this choice is made correctly, it can be a big advantage -- if it is made incorrectly, it can do great harm. In Federal Court, the judge will usually be more familiar with the general maritime law, and is more likely to apply those principles sooner and more accurately. In State court, state law is more likely to be applied, unless one of the parties specifically raises the issue. In Maryland state court, there are two levels of trial courts -- District and Circuit. A case with smaller damages ($30,000 or below) may be best brought in District Court, because the procedures are simpler and trial will be over sooner. There are no juries in District Court, however, so a more complicated and more contested case may be best in Circuit Court.
What if the Boat Wasn't on the Chesapeake?
If you have a case involving a boat that was not on the Chesapeake, various law may apply. A boat on the Atlantic will also be subject to maritime law. A boat on an inland pond (not connected to the Bay or the Ocean) will not be subject to maritime law. An injury that occurs out of the water but involves a boat will probably not be subject to maritime law, but under certain circumstances it will -- generally if the injury is caused by a boat that was on the water, but came up on land.
How to Choose
If you have a case to which maritime law applies, it is best to analyze the issues to determine whether maritime doctrines are better or worse for the particular matter. If they are better, it is best to be in federal court, or at least to bring the federal maritime issues to the State court's attention as soon as possible. If, however, state law is preferable, it is best to select a state court and not emphasize the maritime law issues. In any court, of course, it is best to have thought through which law applies and make a plan for the case that best emphasizes ones own strengths.
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