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Brett Rivkind
Brett Rivkind
Attorney • (305) 374-0565

Federal Appellate Court Rules On Right To A Jury Trial In Admiralty And Maritime Case

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It is necessary to start this article with a little bit of background about Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction, and the proper forums such claims can be filed in. Over the 28 years plus I have been handling Maritime cases, I have come across many lawyers, and even judges, who believe that an Admiralty and Maritime law claim must be filed in the Federal Court. The misconception is that Admiralty and Maritime claims are exclusively within the Federal Courts’ jurisdiction.

First, the Constitution is the starting point regarding the judicial power of the Federal Courts in Admiralty cases. The United States Constitution provides the judicial power of the Federal Courts “shall extend… to all cases of Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction.” U.S. CONST. art. III, § 2, cl.1.

Congress exercised the Constitutional grant of power and implemented it through 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), which provides that the District Courts have original jurisdiction over “any civil cases of Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” Thus, the Federal Courts have jurisdiction over all Admiralty and Maritime cases regardless of the citizenship of the parties. There does not have to be diversity of citizenship.

Some types of Admiralty and Maritime cases are only able to be brought within the Admiralty jurisdiction of a Federal Court, such as an In Rem action against a vessel. The State Courts do not have jurisdiction over In Rem claims against the vessel, nor do the Federal Courts on the law side. Therefore the only way to bring an In Rem action against the vessel is to file in Federal Court under the Admiralty side of the Federal Court, which is simply the Admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal Court under the special Admiralty rules and proceedings governing such claims.

The clause which contains the language “saving to suitors” provides that a claim can be brought “at law” under a Federal Court’s diversity jurisdiction, or even brought in a State Court. This is referred to as the savings to suitors clause which gives an Admiralty and Maritime Plaintiff an ability to pursue a case at law in Federal Court, or in State Court, and also obtain the right to a jury trial.

Accordingly, a Plaintiff who has a claim that is an Admiralty and Maritime claim has three choices: Suit may brought in Federal Court under the Admiralty jurisdiction, in Federal Court under diversity jurisdiction, or in State Court. This is assuming it is an in personam action against a person or corporation, and not an in rem action against a vessel.

If a Plaintiff has a choice as to which of these three bases for bringing their claim, Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets forth the procedure a Plaintiff must follow if electing to proceed under the Federal Court’s Admiralty jurisdiction with the special Admiralty rules and procedures that apply. Often times you will see in a Federal Court pleading, in the caption, a designation of the case as a Rule 9(h) election. This is where a Plaintiff is making it clear that he is proceeding in Admiralty. In such a situation, there is no right to a jury trial. Often times the lawyer will make a mistake by indicating he is proceeding forward under the Admiralty jurisdiction, or referring to Rule 9(h), when the lawyer could have proceeded forward under diversity of citizenship with the right to a jury trial. If there is an indication that the lawyer is proceeding in Admiralty, there will be no right to a jury trial even if there is an alternative basis for the jurisdiction of the Federal Court. Once the reference is made to the Admiralty jurisdiction of the court, it is assumed that the lawyer intends to proceed forward under Admiralty jurisdiction.

In a recent case of interest in Admiralty law, Luera v. M/V Alberta, 2011 WL 768849 (C.A.5th) (TEX), the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals faced a tricky jurisdictional question and issues relating to the right to a jury trial for a Plaintiff who combined both In Personam claims and In Rem claims in one lawsuit. The Plaintiff in this particular case was smart enough to make it very clear that the Plaintiff was proceeding under the diversity of citizenship jurisdiction of the Federal Court with respect to the In Personam claims. Of course the In Rem claims had to be based on the Admiralty jurisdiction of the Court, which typically would not contain a right to a jury trial. However, the In Personam claims, if brought alone, brought under the diversity jurisdiction of the Federal Court would carry the right to a jury trial. The District Court had ruled that since the Plaintiff had not elected to pursue the In Personam claims under the Admiralty jurisdiction, and had specifically stated the claims were being pursued under the diversity of citizenship jurisdiction, that the Plaintiff should be entitled to a jury trial on the In Personam claims. Since the In Rem claims arose out of the same set of facts as the In Personam claims, the District Court concluded that all of the claims could be tried before a jury, including the In Rem claims.

An appeal followed and the argument was that the In Rem claims could not be heard before a jury. It was also argued that by including In Rem claims and invoking the Admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal Court in the law suit, none of the claims could be tried before a jury.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court, and essentially concluded that there was nothing in the Admiralty jurisdictional grants or rules that would preclude the non-admiralty claims from going forward with a jury trial. In addition, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals cited case law which supported trying all of the claims together with the jury, including the claims based on solely on Admiralty jurisdiction. The Court concluded this was a much more efficient manner in which to proceed, and at the same time preserved the Plaintiff’s right to a jury trial that had been properly preserved by the Plaintiff’s attorney by specifically pleading diversity of citizenship as the basis for the In Personam claims.

The case illustrates the complexity of Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction, and the importance of considering how to proceed forward if any Admiralty claims are filed in Federal Court so that one can obtain a jury trial if possible.