What is ‘Admiralty Court’ and How Do Boaters End Up There?

I was briefly involved in a lawsuit last year, in connection with a boat accident, and I was a little confused by some of the terminology. First, what is the difference between “admiralty law” and “maritime law?” Second, I had always heard that a maritime case had to be filed in Admiralty Court, but this case was filed in Orange County Superior Court. What exactly is “Admiralty Court,” and how does a case end up there?
Questions about legal definitions generally lead to a dry technical discussion, but in this case the reader is looking at some basic maritime law principles, so it’s probably worth taking a look. Bear with us.

Historically, the terms “admiralty law” and “maritime law” had separate meanings, but today they are used interchangeably. Admiralty or maritime law is simply a set of legal rules, concepts and processes that relate to navigation and commerce by water. The body of maritime law that is applied today can trace its roots back hundreds of years to the establishment of laws by early Egyptians, Phoenicians and Greeks to govern commerce in the Mediterranean Sea.

Similarly, the application of modern maritime law is focused on maritime commerce — but since recreational boating has been held by courts to have an impact on maritime navigation and commerce, most maritime law principles also apply to recreational boating. Legal principles that work for big ships can produce an odd result when applied to a case involving a 30-foot sailboat, but that is nonetheless the legal umbrella under which that case would proceed.

U.S. maritime law traces its roots largely to the English system of admiralty law, which originally dealt with cases of piracy, naval discipline and naval prizes. The English admiralty cases were heard by separate “Admiralty Courts,” and over time the system evolved to consider commercial maritime matters as well as the naval cases within their admiralty jurisdiction.

“Jurisdiction” is the right and power of a court to interpret and apply the law. We could spend a law school semester discussing the scope of “admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,” but it generally refers to a vessel accident that occurs on navigable waters or a contract or claim that directly effects a vessel’s operation, maintenance, repair, seaworthiness or safety. These guidelines will exclude some cases that may otherwise seem to involve maritime law. A contract for the purchase and sale of a vessel, for example, does not concern any of those things and as such is not considered to be a maritime contract.

All U.S. courts derive their authority from the U.S. Constitution — and when the framers of the Constitution addressed the question of admiralty jurisdiction, they simply extended the power of the U.S. Federal Courts to include “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” The delegation of admiralty cases to the federal court system did not include the creation of separate “Admiralty Courts.” Instead, maritime cases are heard in the United States by federal district courts exercising admiralty jurisdiction by applying this body of maritime law.

To confuse matters somewhat, the extension of the federal judicial power to maritime cases was implemented with a clause that allows plaintiffs in most cases, at their option, to file a maritime case in State Court. The State Court judge in those cases would need to apply the same maritime legal principles as a federal judge would apply in a federal maritime case, but the attorney filing the case may prefer State Court for various strategic reasons. The case that was discussed in the reader’s question was filed in Orange County Superior Court pursuant to this provision.

A discussion of jurisdiction and the court system may be of little practical use to the average boater, but these are important issues that need to be considered in litigation. An experienced maritime attorney can help to navigate a legal claim through the system.

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