Navigability a Question of Fact for Federal Courts

The United States district courts have original jurisdiction over any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.  Admiralty jurisdiction in tort cases requires that the tortious act occurred on the navigable waters of the United States and the tort bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.  The term “navigable waterways of the United States” refers to bodies of water that are navigable in fact.  This includes waters used or capable of being used as waterborne highways for commerce. There has never been any doubt that admiralty jurisdiction extends to the high seas and the territorial seas, but the same may not be said of inland waters.

In March 2010, Larry Boudreaux was conducting commercial crawfishing activities out of a commercial fishing skiff in the Atchafalaya Basin when a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries vessel collided with Mr. Boudreaux’s vessel, sending Mr. Boudreaux overboard.  Mr. Boudreaux suffered physical injuries and brought a tort suit in federal court pursuant to admiralty jurisdiction.  The defendant, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, filed a Motion for Summary Judgment before the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana alleging there was no admiralty jurisdiction because the collision did not occur on navigable waters.

The property where the incident occurred presented a genuine dispute of material fact with regard to whether the area was seasonally navigable.  The property flooded occasionally and defendant argued the flooding did not coincide with any particular commercial season, and that the property was usually high and dry, but it just so happened to be flooded on the day the incident occurred.  The plaintiff presented evidence that with the exception of two or three seasons, he had commercially fished for crawfish and catfish in and around the area since 1985 and he was able to access the area on an annual basis, coinciding with commercial crawfishing season, which generally falls between January and July of each year, depending on the relative water levels.  Mr. Boudreaux also submitted the affidavit of another commercial fisherman that stated he personally commercially fished the waters where the incident occurred for years.

The court denied defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and held there is no requirement that a body of water be navigable during a particular commercial season in order for admiralty jurisdiction to be found.  It has been held sufficient for a finding of navigability that a particular body of water is “navigable for a significant portion of time” over the years.


Boudreaux v. LA Dep’t of Wildlife & Fisheries