United States: Louisiana Court Refuses To Find Admiralty Jurisdiction Over Personal Injury Occurring On A Trailered Vessel

Case: Welch v. Jefferson Mark Daniels
             Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal
             No. 2016-0311, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 1976 (10/31/16)

A guest passenger aboard the Defendant's vessel sustained serious personal injuries on October 16, 2012, when he cut his arm on a rusty fastener while attempting to descend to the lowest level of the boat. Prior to the time of the accident, the boat had been towed back to the launch and dock because of mechanical problems. However, the parties disagreed as to the particular location of the vessel at the precise time of the accident. Plaintiff alleged that he was helping to secure the boat to remove it from the water. He further stated "[a]t the time of the accident and injury, the rear wheels of the trailer were still partially in the water, and had not yet been removed from the navigable waterway." Thus, the plaintiff insinuated that the vessel was on navigable waters. The Defendant maintained the boat was on a trailer on dry land, and "the injury did not occur on any navigable waters" as required for admiralty jurisdiction.

Originally, the suit was filed one day before the one-year prescription period tolled. Plaintiff's theory of recovery sounded in Louisiana tort law. Defendant averred Plaintiff had filed the pending suit in an improper venue and sought to have the suit either dismissed or transferred to an appropriate district court. The parties subsequently consented and had the suit transferred, whereupon the Plaintiff immediately filed an amended and supplemental petition for damages asserting admiralty jurisdiction. Plaintiff asserted the incident occurred over navigable waters and involved a traditionally maritime activity. Plaintiff thus claimed the suit was not subject to Louisiana's general one year liberative prescription period, but was subject to a three year statute of limitations commencing from the date the cause of action arose, as customarily provided in maritime tort actions.

Defendant responded with an exception of prescription (Louisiana's version of a Motion to Dismiss based on statute of limitations), arguing there was no factual basis for federal admiralty jurisdiction, and under the liberative prescription rules of Louisiana, the claim was prescribed. Under Louisiana's statute of limitations, while the suit was originally filed before the tolling, it was filed in the wrong venue. Because the statute of limitations is not interrupted by the filing in a court of improper venue, Defendant argued that the suit must be dismissed. The district court agreed, and the matter was dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that federal admiralty law extended to his claim, and the district court erred in failing to apply the three-year statute of limitations provided to maritime tort claims.

The First Circuit noted the traditional test for admiralty jurisdiction has changed substantially from its original conception to how it is applied today. Traditionally, the test for admiralty tort jurisdiction was based solely on whether the tort occurred on navigable waters, which required the harmful act and the injury to be wholly sustained on navigable waters. The First Circuit found, however, through the enactment of the Admiralty Extension Act, Congress did away with the requirement that the injury be wholly sustained on navigable waters. So, the First Circuit phrased its inquiry as whether the Admiralty Extension Act extended admiralty jurisdiction to the Plaintiff's tort case.

The court found that it did not. The court reasoned that federal law and admiralty jurisprudence still dictate that a party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction over a tort claim must satisfy two conditions. Namely, under Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, (1995), a plaintiff must establish elements of location and connection with maritime activity in order to invoke maritime jurisdiction. According to the court, the Plaintiff did not meet the first requirement, as he failed to prove the tort either occurred on navigable waters or was caused by a vessel on navigable waters, assuming the injury was suffered on land. The court noted the Plaintiff neither personally attested that his injury occurred when the boat was on navigable waters, nor did he testify as to the location of the vessel itself. Rather, the Plaintiff's assertions only mentioned the back wheels of the trailer were still partially submerged in the water, and his testimony devoid of any allegations regarding the location of the vessel itself. Accordingly, the court found Plaintiff's allegations to be factually insufficient to meet the admiralty jurisdiction test, and the district court was not cast in error. 

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