On-Board Injuries and Maritime Jurisdiction

Jan 01, 2014 A. Benjamin Chiriboga, Moore & Company, P.A.

      It’s often thought that any injury aboard a vessel on navigable waters automatically endows a court, and subsequently a plaintiff, with maritime jurisdiction. However, this is not always the case. The injury must have also occurred in connection with a traditional maritime activity to give a court maritime jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claim.

      This issue becomes even more complicated when a contractor, working aboard a vessel, is injured. Unlike passengers enjoying cruising or crewperson working directly for the purpose of cruising and navigation, contractors are sometime doing activities only marginally related to a maritime activity, which can make the argument more difficult.

      "A party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) over a tort claim must satisfy conditions of location and of connection with maritime activity." Jerome B. Grubart. Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995).

      A two-part analysis is used to determine whether admiralty jurisdiction exists. The first part is known as the locality or “situs” test and determines whether the tort occurred on navigable waters. Typically if the injury occurred on navigable waters this element will be satisfied.

      The second part is trickier. Known as the “nexus” test, it determines whether there is a sufficient connection to maritime activity. The nexus test is comprised of a two-pronged analysis.

      First, the court must evaluate the general features of the incident to determine whether it can have a “potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce”.

      Second, is the question of whether "the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity."

      Let’s say a contractor is injured while rearranging faulty live electrical wires that were exposed on the vessel at the pool deck, where passengers were intended to gather and watch bands play music. On the one hand, surely there is a dangerous condition that could cause injury to passengers onboard and has the ability to disrupt maritime commerce. However, is stage set up aboard a vessel related close enough to a maritime activity so as to have a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity?

      In other words, is the construction of a stage distinct in its maritime character or is it just as related to a land based activity or even more so. The way and manner the activityis pleaded in the complaint may make all the difference.

      Such was the case in Penton v. Pompano Construction Co. Inc., 976 F.2d 636 (11 th Cir. 1992) where a Plaintiff was injured while moving a crane from a barge, located in waters off of Key Biscayne for purposes of constructing a jetty into the Atlantic Ocean. After determining that the injury occurred on navigable waters, the Court nevertheless denied maritime jurisdiction because “moving a crane from the deck of a barge to land, had nothing to do with a traditional maritime activity.” In Penton, although the Plaintiff was injured on navigable waters on a vessel; a barge, the act of moving a crane to land being used to construct a jetty was not deemed a maritime activity.

      In the context of cruise lines, the cruise line industry is held, almost without question, to be maritime commerce. Therefore, injuries and dangerous conditions onboard cruise ships are found to have the potential to disrupt maritime commerce so much so that shore excursions and injuries during an aerobics exercise class have been found to have had a sufficient connection to maritime activity. But these cases have dealt with passengers, not contractors and workers; an important distinction in some the eyes of some courts.

      An open question exists as to whether injuries to workers and contractors give rise, without question, to maritime jurisdiction. As in Penton¸ it may largely deal with what the worker was doing and how that activity was related to the navigation of the vessel, as well as its disruptive effect on maritime activity.

      A. Benjamin Chiriboga is a litigation attorney practicing with the full service maritime art and aviation boutique law firm of Moore & Company, P.A. in Coral Gables, Florida.