by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
If the name of your company is Christopher Columbus, LLC then it is probably reasonable for you to expect that you will be subject to the maritime jurisdiction of the federal courts. Nonetheless, this was the issue presented in a recent Third Circuit decision, In The Matter Of The Complaint Of Christopher Columbus, LLC (t/a Ben Franklin Yacht), As Owner Of The Vessel Ben Franklin Yacht, For Exoneration From Or Limitation Of Liability.
The case involved a "drunken brawl which erupted among passengers who were enjoying a cruise on the Delaware River onboard the vessel Ben Franklin Yacht." Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that they were assaulted by other passengers on the vessel while the boat was docking, and at least one alleged that the assault continued in the parking lot near the dock. They alleged that the boats crew members caused their injuries by "providing inadequate security and overserving alcohol to passengers." Plaintiffs sued in state court, and Defendant responded by filing a "limitation action" in federal court. (A "limitation action" is a unique wrinkle in maritime law that allows the "owner of a vessel" to limit its liability to "an amount equal to the value of the owner's interest in the vessel and pending freight.") Both sides then moved for summary judgment. But, while these motions were pending, the district court, sua sponte, invited briefing on whether the court had jurisdiction. After briefing and oral argument, the district court found that maritime jurisdiction was lacking and, therefore, dismissed defendant's limitation action.
Defendant appealed. This is where, I think, it gets interesting, at least for someone who does not generally practice maritime law. (Although I did write about a different case not too long ago, which is actually cited in the Christopher Columbus case, so maybe I am developing a niche.)
Under the U.S. Constitution, federal courts have the power to hear "all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." As numerous courts have held, the "fundamental interest" giving rise to this power is the "protection of maritime commerce." With this in mind, a matter falls within the federal court's maritime jurisdiction if: (1) the underlying tort occurred on "navigable water" or the injury was suffered on land but was caused by a vessel on navigable water; and (2) the underlying tort has a connection with maritime activity. It is the second part of this test that is interesting.
One way that courts determine whether a tort has a connection with maritime activity is to determine whether the "general features of the type of incident involved" have a "potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce." To do this, courts first come up with a "general" description of the events and then determine whether events like that could potentially disrupt maritime commerce. In other words, they do not consider whether the actual events actually disrupted anything. Rather, they describe those events generally and then determine whether events fitting that general description might disrupt maritime commerce.
So, for example, in the case I previously wrote about, Hargus v. Ferocious & Impetuous, plaintiff was standing on the deck of a yacht while it was anchored in "knee deep" water, close to shore, in the Virgin Islands. For some unexplained reason, some of the other passengers, who were standing on shore, threw beer cans at plaintiff. Upon seeing this, the captain of the boat, who was standing nearby the passengers who threw the beer cans, also for unexplained reasons, threw an empty plastic coffee cup at plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that he was injured by the coffee cup and sued in federal court. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Using the approach described above, the court described the incident, generally, as "throwing a small inert object from land at an individual onboard an anchored vessel." It then held that this type of activity did not "threaten a disruptive effect on maritime commerce because it does not have the potential of disrupting navigation, damaging nearby commercial vessels, or causing a commercial vessel to divert from its course."
In Christopher Columbus, the court described the incident — again, generally — as "an altercation between passengers on a boat in the process of docking." Based on this description, the court held that the matter could, potentially, disrupt maritime commerce. It held that an altercation could distract the captain or crew, which "could have resulted in the vessel crashing into or in some colliding with the pier, causing damage to the vessel or to the pier." Also, "a mishap during docking [ ] has the potential to cause injuries to passengers or the crew, the latter of which could leave the vessel unable to dock at the pier." Finally, my personal favorite:
[I]f the crew was sufficiently sidetracked by the altercation and unable to execute the docking maneuver, the vessel could be forced back out on the waterway with a veritable riot among the passengers. That would certainly be distracting to the captain and crew, and also pose a risk to nearby vessels.
Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the district court, finding that maritime jurisdiction was appropriate. In doing so, the Third Circuit rejected plaintiff's argument that none of these potential disruptions actually occurred. This is the part that I find fascinating. The Third Circuit observed that, under settled maritime law, the test for jurisdiction rests on "the effects that the type of incident involved could have on maritime commerce, not whether the particular incident at hand actually disrupted maritime commerce" (emphasis in original). So, it is not what actually happened but whether the incident, described generally, could potentially disrupt maritime commerce. Something to remember next time you are cruising the Delaware River, or any other navigable waters.