The Supreme Court of Texas recently determined that admiralty jurisdiction did not apply to a horrific drunk driving crash simply because the driver responsible for the crash had been drinking on a small, chartered fishing boat. The facts were not disputed. A technology company hosted a business retreat at a lodge in Aransas Pass near the Gulf of Mexico. On that retreat, one of the company’s clients drank excessively on a fishing boat. The boat returned to the lodge, at which time the client left to drive home. One-and-a-half hours later, the “significantly intoxicated” client crossed into oncoming traffic and struck a motorcycle. Both motorcycle riders lost their left legs. They sued the technology company, arguing that it negligently allowed their client to drink excessively. Texas does not recognize such social host liability, so the plaintiffs asserted that federal maritime law applied to the case because the client became intoxicated on a fishing boat.
In Jerome B. Grubert, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., the United States Supreme Court announced the test for determining admiralty jurisdiction over tort claims:
A party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction . . . over a tort claim must satisfy conditions of location and of connection with maritime activity. A court applying thee location test must determine whether the tort occurred on navigable water or whether injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable water. The connection test raises two issues. A court, first, must assess the general features of the type of incident involved to determine whether the incident has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce. Second a court must determine whether the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
The Supreme Court of Texas applied the Grubert test to the facts of the case. It determined that a factual dispute exited regarding the plaintiffs’ ability to satisfy the location test. The plaintiffs had submitted an expert’s analysis that the drunk driver’s level of intoxication indicated that he had been drinking on the fishing boat. Therefore the court assumed for sake of argument that there was at least some evidence that a duty owed by the company was breached on the boat.
The plaintiffs were not as successful with the two-part maritime connection test because: (1) the consumption of alcohol by guests (not guides) aboard a small, chartered fishing boat does not pose a threat to commercial shipping; and (2) supervising the consumption of alcohol aboard a small, chartered fishing boat cannot be characterized as “substantially related to a traditional maritime activity.” Because the plaintiffs could not satisfy the second part of the Grubert test, maritime law did not apply to their case.