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Maritime Casualty

Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction Applies to Navigable Waters

When Does Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction Apply?

A common issue in lawsuits involving bodies of water is whether federal courts can hear the suit under their statutory admiralty jurisdiction.  See 28 U.S.C. 1333(1).  The first consideration is whether the basis of the lawsuit occurred on “navigable waters,” to which courts will evaluate the physical characteristics of the body of water.

For example, recently in Macgowan v. Cox, 487 Fed App’x 930 (5th Cir. 2012), a pro se plaintiff sought a salvage fee after rescuing a jet ski that was drifting on Lake LBJ in Texas.  The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling that Lake LBJ was not a navigable waterway for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction.  It noted that the lake was landlocked, bounded by impassible dams on both ends, and was located entirely within a single state.

Not Navigable When Entirely Within Louisiana and Too Shallow For Travel

The Fifth Circuit also addressed the issue in Guillory v. Outboard Motor Corp., 956 F.2d 114 (5th Cir. 1992).  That case involved an incident in which the plaintiff was operating his bass boat on the waters of Crooked Creek Reservoir in Louisiana.  As in Macgowan, the Guillory court ruled that the case was not subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction.  Crooked Creek was entirely within Louisiana, so it was not subject to interstate travel.  The creek was also “so shallow in depth and overgrown by brush that it was difficult, if not impossible, for any vessel to travel across its waters.”

When determining whether an accident occurs on “navigable waters” for purposes of federal admiralty jurisdiction, an important inquiry is whether the body of water is subject to interstate commerce.  Macgowan and Guillory show us that landlocked bodies of water wholly located within a single state are unlikely to pass this threshold test.

Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.