ABC’s of Admiralty Law

Kimberly Wald, Attorney, Kelley | Uustal

Being a South Florida native, born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, I spent the majority of my childhood on, or in, the water. I eventually learned to sail and later became a sailing instructor at a sleep-away camp.  In college I joined Tulane’s sailing team and was able to race competitively at regattas across the United States.  Naturally, once I became an attorney the concept of admiralty law piqued my interest. So, what exactly is “admiralty law”?  First of all, there are different types of admiralty law depending on what kind of case you have.  For example, there are different requirements for tort, product liability, wrongful death, contract cases etc.; however, all admiralty law under 28 USC 1333 requires the answer to two basic questions: (1) did the tort or contract occur on “navigable waters” and (2) did the incident involve a vessel? 

“Navigable waters” is a legalese term which means a “body of water which can serve as a highway of commerce.”  Case law has interpreted this to mean any body of water that can get you from one state to another state, or from one state to a foreign country.  For example, Florida’ intracoastal is “navigable” because it is a 3,000 mile inland water way that runs from Boston through Florida, and also into some sections in Texas.  On the other hand, Lake Okeechobee would not be considered “navigable waters” since that is a freshwater lake located in the center of Florida and is fully encompassed within the state of Florida.  The “navigability” of the body of water usually extends to the high water mark; however, there are some circumstances where an “extension of land” may be considered admiralty law, although still not technically “navigable waters.”  Pursuant to the Admiralty Extension Act of 1948, if a tort or injury begins on a vessel on navigable waters and extends to some extension of land, such as a pier or dock, the incident may fall under admiralty law.

The second question involves a “vessel.”  A “vessel” means any watercraft or other artificial contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.  This term has been interpreted very broadly and includes pleasure boats.  Interestingly, this definition even includes boats which don’t have motor power such as sail boats, jet skis, canoes etc.  Case law has also interpreted dredges to qualify as “vessels” under this definition.  Thus, as long as you are on “navigable waters” you are likely going to meet the qualifications for admiralty law under the broad interpretation of “vessel.”

Once you are able to answer these first two questions you are likely in admiralty law territory, but as discussed earlier there are many other facets of admiralty law beyond these two questions, such as questions regarding different types of admiralty law, jurisdictional issues, and damages.  Admiralty law involves fascinating questions and concepts and I am looking forward to sharing my knowledge with all of you in future blog posts.

admiralty law

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