U.S. admiralty law is unique in that it provides federal courts with exclusive jurisdiction over many maritime cases.
This begs the question: Why are so many maritime claims litigated in state court if the federal courts are supposed to have exclusive jurisdiction?
The answer stems from another important provision of statutory law: the “saving-to-suitors” clause. This preserves the right of a litigant to have his maritime suit tried beyond the boundaries of the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal court system and brought in many of the state courts of “inferior jurisdiction.” The saving-to-suitors clause is also important in that it can preserve the right to trial by jury, which is not otherwise available in claims that fall strictly within federal admiralty jurisdiction. But the federal court’s exclusive reach over admiralty claims cannot be avoided in all cases. For example, suits in rem, or against a vessel directly, can only be filed and tried in federal court before a judge. No right to a jury trial exists in that instance and other distinctly maritime causes of action.
In recognizing the importance of reserving admiralty jurisdiction to the federal courts, while at the same time balancing the interests of litigants and their state law remedies, Congress enacted certain safeguards so a party can bring their action in state or federal court. Usually a “9(h)” designation is pled when a party wants its case to be tried only in federal court. Such a designation is generally reserved for claims that involve maritime law issues only, or when a party wants to make sure his suit is decided by a federal judge, even though there might be some basis for the case to proceed before a jury in state or federal court.
Other legislation, such as the Jones Act, coupled with the saving-to-suitors clause, enables personal injury plaintiffs to pursue their claims in state or federal court. Seamen have the right to a trial by jury in a Jones Act claim, but they also can limit their cases to a bench trial in federal court by pleading at the outset that the claim is brought “in admiralty” pursuant to rule 9(h).
Some states have tried unsuccessfully to legislate a basis for admiralty jurisdiction within the state court system, but such efforts have typically been overruled as inconsistent with constitutional and federal law requirements that any claims truly in admiralty be litigated in federal court.
The bottom line is that almost any maritime legal dispute can be litigated in federal court, but strategy may warrant seeking an expressly reserved remedy in state court.
Maritime attorney Dan Hoerner is a regularly contributor to WorkBoat magazine.
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of WorkBoat magazine.