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Ask A Maritime Attorney: What are the time limits for filing a lawsuit under Federal Maritime Law versus State Law?


Two years ago I was injured aboard a boat during the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.  I waited a while to hire a lawyer, and when I finally had a firm retained, I was surprised to see that they filed the case in State Court in Orange County.  I am concerned because I read that the time limit for filing a maritime personal injury lawsuit under Federal Maritime Law is three years, while the time limit under State law is two years.  Is this correct?  Should he have filed the lawsuit in Federal court?


I should first point out that if you are questioning your lawyer’s judgment this early in the case, you may want to talk to another lawyer (in person – not through a newspaper!).  That said, based on what you have shared, it does not appear that he is missing any deadlines by filing in State court.

The answer to our reader’s question requires an understanding of Federal and State jurisdiction and the doctrine of Federal Preemption.  Let’s start with jurisdiction.

“Jurisdiction” is the right and power of a court to hear a case and to interpret 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.

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”(historically, the terms “admiralty law” and “maritime law” had distinct meanings, but today they are used interchangeably).

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 will often need to apply the same maritime legal principles as a federal judge would apply in a federal maritime case.  However, the attorney filing the complaint may prefer State Court for various strategic reasons such as the right to a jury.  Our reader’s attorney filed their case in state court pursuant to this provision.

So, the case has been filed in State Court, but the choice between Federal and State law may not be immediately clear.  State personal injury law in our reader’s case requires a lawsuit to be filed within two years after the incident, while Federal maritime law allows the case to be filed within three years.  This is where we need to analyze the issues under the doctrine of Federal Preemption.

The Doctrine of Preemption addresses conflicts between state and federal laws.  Preemption analysis considers whether a federal law or statute will preempt or take precedence over the state law.   Such a conflict arises when compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility, or when state law stands as an obstacle to the full purposes and objectives of Congress.  In cases of a direct conflict, Federal law always prevails over State law.  In our reader’s case, Federal and State laws regarding filing deadlines directly contradict each other, and as such the Federal law allowing a three-year filing deadline prevails.  Our reader’s attorney complied with the applicable law when he filed the lawsuit.

So, let’s summarize.  Broadly speaking, this case is analyzed under two legal principles: “Jurisdiction” and “Choice of Law.”  When analyzing jurisdiction, we must ask whether the court selected by our reader’s attorney has the power to hear the case.  Yes, it does.  Under a choice of law analysis, we must ask whether – regardless of where the case was filed – what body of law is applied in this case to resolve the legal issues?  The answer is that it depends on which issue is being considered.  As we saw in our analysis above, Federal law is applied to determine the deadlines for filing the case, but other aspects of the case would be evaluated under State law if there is no contradicting Federal law.

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.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates ( in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at,  or via email at

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One thought on “Ask A Maritime Attorney: What are the time limits for filing a lawsuit under Federal Maritime Law versus State Law?

  • Bruce Brewer

    Mr. Weil’s column is the most informative section of your fine magazine. He, in proper legal fashion, knows how to explain the courses of legal action without getting his neck in a noose.



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