Eleventh Circuit Defines “Navigable Waters”

The Eleventh Circuit answered a question “almost as old as the doctrine of admiralty jurisdiction itself.”  The question: what are navigable waters?  According to the Eleventh Circuit, “a waterway is navigable for admiralty-jurisdiction purposes if, in its present state, it is capable of supporting commercial activity.”  The Eleventh Circuit begrudgingly stated that it was bound by prior precedent, Richardson v. Foremost Ins. Co., 641 F.2d 314 (5th Cir. 1981).

In Richardson, the Fifth Circuit addressed whether a tort claim based on a collision between two pleasure boats on a waterway that was “seldom, if ever, used for commercial activity” fell within the federal courts’ admiralty jurisdiction.  641 F.2d at 315–16.  The court noted that for admiralty jurisdiction to exist in a tort case, two requirements must be met: (1) there must be a significant relationship between the alleged wrong and traditional maritime activity (the nexus requirement) and (2) the tort must have occurred on navigable waters (the location requirement).  Id. at 315.  Concluding that both requirements had been met, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court had admiralty jurisdiction over the tort claim.  Id. at 316.  The court determined that the nexus requirement had been met because boats “are engaged in traditional maritime activity when a collision between them occurs on navigable waters.”  Id.  As to the location requirement, the court concluded that the tort occurred on navigable waters even though the waterway was seldom, if ever, used for commercial activity.  Id. Specifically, the court said:
We note additionally from the record that the place where the accident occurred is seldom, if ever, used for commercial activity.  That does not cause us to vary from our holding …. It would be introducing another note of uncertainty to hold that admiralty jurisdiction extends only to a stretch of navigable water that presently functions as a commercial artery …. If the waterway is capable of being used in commerce, that is a sufficient threshold to invoke admiralty jurisdiction.
Id. We are bound by this holding.  And the fact that Richardson considered whether admiralty jurisdiction extends to a tort case does not change this conclusion.