Maritime Tort

Tort is legal cause of action when a person has suffered some compensable harm as a result of the negligence or willful misconduct of another person. Classic example of maritime tort would be ship collision. In ship collision case, negligent act of one ship owner or operator results in damage or injury to others.

Tort incident becomes maritime tort falls within maritime jurisdiction if tort has:

  1. maritime location
  2. maritime connection

Tort incident’s maritime connection test has two components:

  1. incident must have potential impact on maritime commerce
  2. incident is substantially related to traditional maritime activity

When maritime incident involves ship on navigable waters, maritime incident is likely to be a maritime tort. In order to be within maritime jurisdiction, tort must have occurred on navigable waters or tort must have been caused by a ship on navigable waters.

In United States, navigable waters are for the use of interstate or foreign commerce. No matter how large or how deep, if that water is wholly within a single state, then that water is not navigable for purposes of determining maritime jurisdiction. Some small and shallow waters, lakes or reservoirs are considered navigable waters, due to use of interstate or foreign commerce. Navigable waters considerations are:

  1. Whether waterway is actually used for maritime commerce doesn’t Even if that water is too small for large ships, that is not a factor. If boat can navigate on that water, that water connects to another state or ocean, that water is considered as navigable waterway
  2. Whether waterway was navigable at one time also doesn’t If the waters were formerly open to ocean or river, but that waterway was closed off due to a shoaling or building of a dam, then waters would cease to be navigable water
  3. Whether waterway can be navigated only at certain tides doesn’t matter, as long as interstate commerce can be carried out on waterway, it will be navigable
  4. When the damage of an incident on navigable water is only realized at the port or shore. Incident is still deemed to have maritime location. Such cases are considered as admiralty extension For example:
    • ship hits a dock or bridge
    • seafarer dies from poisons ingested at sea
    • ship weakens a subway tunnel and causes flooding in buildings miles away

When checking whether an incident has maritime connection, court should describe incident at an intermediate level of possible generality. Intermediate level of possible generality means that an incident should be viewed in broad sense.

Practically, when an incident is viewed in broad sense, almost every ship incident on navigable waters have potential impact on maritime commerce. According to previous court cases, only a few cases involving ships have been found to lack an impact on maritime commerce. Incidents that does not impact on maritime commerce:

  • leakage of carbon monoxide into shore moored houseboat cabin, because carbon monoxide harm was contained solely to houseboat itself
  • cases involving swimmers, scuba divers and surfers in coastal waters where ships have not been involved
  • cases involving boat passengers or cruise ship passengers in fistfight on the dock

Traditional Maritime Activity

Maritime incident must be substantially related to traditional maritime activity, in order to be considered as maritime tort. Traditional maritime activity test for maritime jurisdiction was originally developed as a way for courts to weed out unusual cases that don’t fit into maritime jurisdiction. For example, an airplane had run into a flock of seagulls on takeoff and crashed in Lake Erie. United States Supreme Court held that maritime jurisdiction does not depend on location alone, but also requires that alleged wrong bear significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.

Usually, most cases involving ships have been held to relate to traditional maritime activity, because ship incident satisfies traditional maritime activity test. At least one alleged tortfeasor (wrongdoer) that is the ship itself was engaged in incident substantially related to traditional maritime activity. That maritime activity is claimed to have been proximate cause of the incident.

Generally, any tort case involving negligence on or by ship on navigable waters is likely to be within the maritime tort jurisdiction. Any case not involving negligence related to a ship, is likely to not be a maritime tort, even if it occurs on navigable waters. According to maritime law, plaintiff whose negligence contributed to an accident can still bring suit against others responsible for accident. That is different from contributory negligence which limit when a person can sue others for an accident in which the person was also negligent. Maritime law applies a simple comparative fault standard. If plaintiff’s own fault contributed to an accident, plaintiff can still sue others who were also at fault, but plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by percentage of fault attributable to the plaintiff. In maritime cases, if person is negligent, it is determined by reasonable person standard. Checked that person acted reasonably under the circumstances. Maritime courts would look at expert testimony or other sources to determine what a reasonable person would have done.