Vessels "In Navigation": Determining Admiralty Jurisdiction


In the March 1997 Trial News Special Focus section, I began a series of articles discussing admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. The first article outlined the issue of establishing seaman status. This article will address another key element of jurisdiction, namely the requirement that an injured seaman be in the service of a "vessel" and that the "vessel" be "in navigation" and on "navigable waters."

Many recent court decisions have reaffirmed the importance of the "vessel in navigation" element. For example, in McDermott Int'l, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337, 355, 11 S.Ct. 807, 817, 112 L.Ed.2d 866 (1991), the court stated that: "[t]he key to seaman status is employment-related connection to a vessel in navigation." This requirement is based upon the principle that admiralty jurisdiction is primarily designed to protect those exposed to the perils of the sea.

Vessel Status

The proper focus for beginning an inquiry concerning vessel status is to determine ". . . the purpose for which the craft was constructed and the business in which it is engaged." Germillion v. Gulf Coast Catering Co., 904 F.2d 290, 293 (5th Cir. 1990).

A vessel is generally defined as a floating structure which is an instrument of commerce or used to transport passengers, cargo or equipment on navigable waters. Id. at 293. However, a craft whose purpose does not include transportation may be considered a vessel. Gizoni v. Southwest Marine, 56 F.3d 1138, 1995 AMC 2093 (9th Cir. 1995).

In Germillion, the Fifth Circuit Court outlined the criteria for determining vessel status as follows:

The case law is heavily skewed in favor of conferring [vessel] status upon craft whose primary mission is the transportation of cargo, equipment or passengers over navigable waters. The greater the structure's resemblance to a conventional seafaring craft, the greater the odds of securing vessel status.

In light of the bias favoring traditional craft, it is not surprising that we look to whether a given structure maintains or possesses (1) navigational aids; (2) lifeboats and other life-saving equipment; (3) a raked bow; (4) bilge pumps; (5) crew quarters, and (6) registration with the Coast Guard as a vessel. In addition, the intention of the owner to move the structure on a regular basis, the ability of the submerged structure to be refloated, and the length of time that a structure has remained stationary are relevant to the inquiry. (Id. at 293; emphasis supplied.)

The Second Circuit utilizes a slightly different test, which was outlined by the court in O'Hara v. Weeks Marine, Inc., 928 F. Supp. 257, 259 (E.D. N.Y. 1996),

. . . (1) whether the structure was being used primarily as a work platform during a reasonable period of time immediately preceding plaintiff's accident; (2) whether the structure was moored or otherwise secured at the time of the accident; and (3) whether, despite being capable of movement, any transportation function performed by the structure was merely incidental to its primary purpose of serving as a work platform. [Citation omitted.] The Second Circuit's test, unlike the more commonly used test developed by the Fifth Circuit, does not consider the original purpose for which the structure was constructed; rather, the Second Circuit's test focuses solely on the purpose for which the structure was being used at the time of the injury.

The Ninth Circuit addressed the issue of vessel status in Gizoni, when it stated that:

A floating platform with no independent power, means of steering, navigation lights, navigation aids, or facilities for a crew could nonetheless be a vessel in navigation for purposes of the Jones Act.

Id. at 387-388.

In Navigation

"A vessel is in navigation `when engaged as an instrument of commerce and transportation on navigable waters.'" McKinley v. All-Alaskan Seafoods, Inc., 980 F.2d 567, 569, 1993 AMC 305, 308 (9th Cir. 1992), citing Estate of Wenzel v. Seaward Marine Servs., Inc., 709 F.2d 1326 (9th Cir. 1983). McKinley provides the practitioner with a general rule for determining whether or not a vessel is "in navigation."

The "in navigation" principle has been expanded by some courts to include vessels in dry docks if undergoing only routine or minor repairs. Sea Vessel, Inc. v. Reyes, 23 F.3d 345 (11th Cir. 1994); Waganer v. Sealand Service, Inc., 486 F.2d 955 (5th Cir. 1973); see also Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 115 S.Ct. 2172, 123 L.Ed.2d 314, 1995 AMC 1840 (1995). On the other hand, the Ninth Circuit, in McKinley, held that a vessel which was undergoing major renovations and "was not usable for its intended purpose at the time of the accident" was not "in navigation." 980 F.2d at 571-72.

On Navigable Waters

"A body of water is navigable for purposes of federal admiralty jurisdiction if it is one that, by itself or by uniting with other waterways, forms a continuous highway capable of sustaining interstate or foreign commerce." Reeves v. Mobile Dredging & Pumping Co., Inc., 26 F.3d 1247, 1253 (3d Cir. 1994), citing, The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557, 563, 19 L.Ed 999 (1870).

The test of navigability requires: "(1) at the threshold, the waters in question flow beyond the borders of a single state; (2) second, the waters must be capable of supporting commercial navigation. Whether a body of water is navigable is a question of fact." Thompkins v. Lake Chelan, 1995 AMC 2311 (1995). Based upon this criteria, Lakes Washington and Coeur d'Alene would be navigable, whereas Lake Chelan would not. See Complaint of Rowley, 1977 AMC 199, 425 F. Supp. 116 (D. Idaho 1977), and Thompkins, supra.

The next article in this series will discuss seamen's rights to maintenance, cure, and unearned wages.