Written by attorney Jonathan Craig Reed

When Should a Boating Accident Case be Filed in Federal Court under Admiralty Jurisdiction?

Admiralty or Maritime law is usually used in the case of injuries involving commercial ships. However, federal courts have admiralty jurisdiction in all boating injury cases involving interstate navigable waters of the United States. Interstate navigable waters of the U.S. means the ocean or any lake or river that borders on two or more U.S. state as long as it is possible for a boat to navigate or operate in that water. This means that a jet ski injury in San Diego harbor or a kayak injury on Lake Mead or Lake Havasu can be sued on in federal court under admiralty jurisdiction.

There are at least three major reasons why admiralty law may be the best choice in a boating injury case. First, under admiralty law all Defendants are jointly and severally liable. This means that if one Defendant is 2% at fault for the injury and another is 98% at fault, under admiralty law each Defendant can be held liable for the entire damages. Suppose, for example that careless boater is 98% at fault for Plaintiff's injury but that Repair Shop which did a faulty repair is 2% at fault. Suppose also that careless boater doesn't have much insurance or money but that Repair Shop has a large insurance policy. Under most states' laws, in this case, Repair Shop would only be liable for 2% of Plaintiff's damages. But under admiralty law Plaintiff could collect all of his damages from Repair Shop.

Second, there is an 1873 United State Supreme Court Case, called The Pennsylvania, which is still valid, 86 U.S. 125, which says that if Defendant violated a safety statute the burden is on the Defendant to prove that the violation could not possibly have contributed to the injury. If the Defendant cannot meet this burden, then the Plaintiff wins.

Third, if there is evidence that the Plaintiff was partially at fault, under admirality law the Plaintiff's damages are reduced by the percentage the plaintiff was at fault. Thus, under admirality law if the jury or judge determined that the Plaintiff was 60% at fault the Plaintiff would get 40% of his damages. However, under Nevada state law, if the Plaintiff is more than half at fault, the Plaintiff loses. Admiralty law also offers the possibility of suing the offending boat or ship as well as its owner and/or operator. This procedure is called "arresting the ship." In other words, the offending boat or ship can be seized and stored by U.S. Marshalls pursuant to Court Order before trial to satisfy a possible judgment and if the Plaintiff is successful the Plaintiff's claim takes priority over a lien or mortgage on the offending ship or boat. However, this process of seizing the boat is very expensive and would not be worthwhile in the case of most pleasure boats.

In general federal courts usually move cases along much faster than in state court. This can be an advantage to a Plaintiff with big injuries who needs to get his or her case resolved without waiting years.

Some Plaintiffs' lawyers dislike federal court because a federal jury has to be unanimous for either side to win whereas in Nevada State Court a Plaintiff can win with most but not all of the jurors voting for the Plaintiff. Traditionally, admiralty cases were tried by a judge without a jury. However, the Plaintiff may add to his admiralty claims, claims under state law. The modern trend is to allow a jury trial if either party demands it if there are claims under state law added to the admiralty claims. However, if the Plaintiff's claim is only in admiralty law the trial will be to judge, not the jury. The issue of whether the Plaintiff wants a judge or jury trial is complex but can be controlled in a federal admiralty case to a large extent by the Plaintiff.

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