• Navigating the Waters of Admiralty Jurisdiction
  • May 6, 2013 | Author: Marcus Gerard Mahfood
  • Law Firm: Kubicki Draper - Miami Office
  • In our Winter 2013 Quarterly, we addressed the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, which limited the scope of admiralty jurisdiction by refining what may be classified as a vessel. It is only fitting to now discuss the Eleventh Circuit’s recent ruling that answered a question "almost as old as the doctrine of admiralty jurisdiction itself: what are navigable waters?" Aqua Log, Inc. v. Lost and Abandoned Pre-Cut Logs and Rafts of Logs, 709 F.3d 1055 (11th Cir. 2013) simplified the test for and expanded the breadth of admiralty jurisdiction.

    The case addresses portions of Flint River and Spring Creek, two Georgia waterways supporting interstate commerce for only part of the year. Aqua Log, a company that locates and sells submerged logs, filed an in rem admiralty proceeding to obtain a salvage award or title to certain valuable logs found in each river. Because Aqua Log’s claims were unique to maritime law, they could only be resolved by a Court sitting in admiralty. The two prong test for admiralty tort jurisdiction requires (1) a significant relationship between the alleged wrong and traditional maritime activity (a nexus) and (2) the tort must have occurred on navigable waters (location). A century of law has established that the body of water in question must be navigable for purposes of interstate commerce for admiralty jurisdiction to exist.

    The State of Georgia opposed Aqua Log claiming ownership of the logs and moved for Summary Judgment. Georgia argued subject matter jurisdiction was lacking because there was no present or potential commercial activity on either waterway. The District Court granted Summary Judgment for Georgia as Aqua Log offered no evidence of planned commerce.

    The Eleventh Circuit reversed in light of controlling pre-1981 Fifth Circuit precedent. Noting the navigability requirement applied equally to tort and salvage cases alike, the Eleventh Circuit held" a waterway is navigable for admiralty jurisdiction purposes, if, in its present state, it is capable of supporting commercial activity. "The Court’s ruling was consistent with the First, Second, Fourth and Seventh Circuits, all which apply a capability test. The Court reasoned a test requiring actual commercial activity would unnecessarily involve the presentation of evidence. Ultimately, this would undermine the predictability that encourages maritime commerce, the primary purpose of maritime law.

    While the Supreme Court in Lozman limited the scope of admiralty jurisdiction, Aqua Log, at least in the Eleventh Circuit, has conversely broadened the sphere with its expansion of navigable waters. The Court expressly stated the test "may expand admiralty jurisdiction into waterways that may never be used for commercial maritime activities." Like most salty Supreme Court and Circuit Court decisions, Aqua Log advanced the federal interests of uniformity in admiralty law in hopes of simplifying and better protecting maritime commercial activity.