Applicability of Admiralty and Maritime Law to Pleasure Boats and Jet Skis

Applicability of Admiralty and Maritime Law to Pleasure Boats and Jet Skis

Recreational boaters using the territorial waters of South Carolina share the sentiment of the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: "There is nothing -- absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Unfortunately, "simply messing about in boats" often results in accidents whereby recreational boaters suffer serious personal injuries, die or incur damage to their boats. Numerous recreational boaters and their attorney's do not realize that admiralty and maritime law is applicable to legal matters involving recreational boats and jet skis.

The general maritime law of the United States, which was once reserved for governing the maritime commerce of transporting cargoes and passengers over navigable waters, is now uniformly accepted as being applicable to recreational boaters using the navigable waterways of South Carolina. Admiralty law as compared to land based law has its own unique laws, regulations, standards, customs, actions and civil procedural rules. In addition there are many South Carolina recreational boating laws that may supplement admiralty law.

Often, admiralty law will provide a client involved in boating or jet ski accident with more options or advantages than they posses under land based or South Carolina law. If a claim comes within admiralty jurisdiction, then the substantive maritime law will control no matter where the action is filled. Therefore, it is important for an attorney to be familiar with admiralty and South Carolina law when advising a client on a matter regarding a boat or jet ski. A proper evaluation of litigation strategies should lead to better results for your client and increased client satisfaction.

Does maritime law apply?

The first step in determining how to advise a client involved in boating or jet ski accident is to determine if admiralty jurisdiction exists. A tort claim involving a recreational boat falls within admiralty jurisdiction where the accident occurs on navigable waters or a recreational boat on navigable waters causes an injury suffered on land and the tort has a nexus with traditional maritime activities. Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1973); Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 688 (1982); Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990).

Navigable waters are all waters, including lakes, waterways, rivers, harbors, oceans, etc., which are being used by vessels or capable of being used in interstate or foreign commerce. The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. 557 (1871). If a body of water such as a lake can only be used for intrastate commerce, then it is not considered navigable. Thus, personal injuries to a recreational boater that occur on a lake wholly within South Carolina will fall outside of admiralty jurisdiction.

South Carolina is extremely fortunate to have numerous bodies of water recreational boating activities occur on a daily basis. Navigable waters in South Carolina include the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Savannah, New, Beaufort, Edisto, Stono, Ashley, Cooper, Wando, Black, Sampit, Waccamaw, and Little Rivers, Charleston Harbor, Winyah Bay, St. Helena, Port Royal, and Calibogue Sounds, and Lake.

In order to satisfy the second part of the test for admiralty jurisdiction, a nexus or connection with traditional maritime activity, the accident must have "a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce" and the "general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity." Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. *** (1995). The Supreme Court has held that navigation of recreational boats on navigable waters is a maritime traditional activity and that a collision between two recreational boats is within admiralty jurisdiction. Foremost Ins. Co., 457 U.S. 688. Personal injuries to and deaths of recreational boaters have been held to come within admiralty jurisdiction. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S.*** (1996). In Yamaha, the Supreme Court without discussing the existence of admiralty jurisdiction assumed that admiralty jurisdiction existed for the wrongful death of a little girl as a result of a jet ski accident. Accidents involving recreational boats and swimmers have been found to come within admiralty jurisdiction. Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F.Supp. 438 (D.S.C. 1994); Wright v. U.S., 883 F.Supp. 60 (D.S.C. 1994).

What are the procedural affects of admiralty jurisdiction?

Once the practitioner determines that admiralty law applies to a claim involving a pleasure boat or a jet ski, several options are available on how to proceed with the handling of the case. The first option is to decide in which court to file the action, should the need arise. An admiralty claim may be filed in state or federal court. It also may be filled in a state court of proper venue pursuant to the "saving to suitors" clause of 28 U.S.C. § 1333.

The plaintiff may elect to file his maritime claim in a federal court of proper venue pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333. Since federal courts have original jurisdiction over admiralty claims, the requirements for diversity jurisdiction to do not have to be satisfied. Accordingly, complete diversity between the parties does not have to exist. Moreover, there is no minimum amount of $75,000.00 in controversy requirement for bringing a recreational boating claim in federal court. In other words, a recreational boating claim filled in federal court does not have to exceed the sum or value of $75,000.00.

The practitioner needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages in determining which court to file. For example, if a case is brought in federal court pursuant to the federal court's admiralty jurisdiction and designated an admiralty and maritime claim under Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, then neither party is entitled to a trial by jury on the plaintiff's causes of action. Fed. R. Civ. P. 38(e). Depending on the facts and circumstances of each case, a jury trial may not be advantageous for a plaintiff and a judge-tried case may be strategically more advantageous. An additional consideration is how long it takes in federal court as compared to state court for a matter to be tried.

The Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims are available when a recreational boating claim is filled in federal court. These Supplemental Rules to the Federal of Civil Procedure provide parties with procedures that are not found in the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. For instance, the Supplemental Rules permit a plaintiff to arrest or attach a vessel owned by a defendant to obtain security for a plaintiff's claim or to enforce a maritime tort lien against the vessel. Supplemental Rules B and C for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims. The in rem arrest or quasi in rem attachment of a pleasure boat is difficult, time consuming and expensive. However, it serves as a valuable tool where a plaintiff has difficulty in collecting a judgment or needs prejudgment security for his claim.

Rule F of the Supplemental Rules allows a party to file a limitation of or exoneration from liability action in federal court. This type of action permits a party to attempt to limit that their liability to the value of the pleasure boat after the accident or to be exonerated from liability. A limitation of liability proceeding is not available under South Carolina law.

What is admiralty and maritime law?

The maritime law of the United States consists of federal statutory law and common judge made law. It applies to accidents or incidents involving both commercial vessels and recreational vessels. Under the general maritime law, a recreational boat and its owner and operator owe to all passengers, other than employees of the owner and/or operator, a duty of care to not negligently injure them and to warn them of any known dangers.

The duty of care requires the operator and owner to exercise good seamanship practices and the care of a reasonably prudent mariner at all times. Good seamanship practices or the care of a reasonably prudent mariner depends on the location of the accident, the type of boat involved, the water conditions, the current, weather conditions, other vessel traffic, the activities of the recreational boat at the time of the accident, whether the recreational boat was anchored, the movements of the boat(s) involved in the accident, etc.

Admiralty law also has burden of proof shifting rules based upon statutory violations. The PENNSYLVANIA, 86 U.S. (19 Wall.) 125 (1874). A recreational boater may be liable for causing a personal injury if they violate the Rules of the Road, 33 U.S.C. §§ 2001-2073, or United States Coast Guard regulations relating to recreational boats. The Rules of Road govern how vessels are to navigate, actions required to avoid collisions, the types of lights that must be displayed by vessels, and the need for a lookout. The general maritime law consists of other numerous unique laws that are extremely different than the South Carolina laws and statutes that apply to land based actions.

Does South Carolina State law apply?

In situations where federal maritime law does not address a particular issue and does not preempt regulation of the issue, a federal or state court may apply South Carolina law. Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman's Fund Ins., 348 U.S. 310 (1955). South Carolina has several laws regarding the operation of a pleasure craft, which may impose liability on a pleasure boat operator where violated. Additionally, there has been an active campaign to strengthen South Carolina boating while intoxicated laws. However, this legislation has not been passed by the South Carolina Legislature.

Should a pleasure boat operator violate any of the aforementioned laws and injure someone or cause damage to property, they will more than likely be found liable. Section 50-21-87 prohibits the operation of a recreational boat within fifty feet of another vessel displaying a diver down flag to mark the location of a diver. S.C. Ann. § 50-21-87 (Law. Co-op. 1976). Section 50-21-110(1) is a codification of the general maritime tort law. It prohibits any person from operating a motorboat, pleasure boat, sailboat, surfboard, water skis, jet skis or similar device in a negligent manner "so as endanger the life, limb, or property of any person." S.C. Ann. § 50-21-110 (Law. Co-op. 1976).

This section further prohibits any person from operating a motorboat, pleasure boat, sailboat, surfboard, water skis, jet skis or similar device while under the influence of alcohol, narcotic drug, barbiturate, marijuana or hallucinogen. Id. A person convicted criminally of negligent operation of a pleasure boat or the operation of a pleasure boat while under the influence of the said substances, may also be prohibited from operating a vessel on any waters of South Carolina for two years or less. Id. This penalty is in addition to other penalties that may be imposed on the offending pleasure boater. Several of these penalties are delineated in S.C. Ann. § 50-21-112 and § 50-21-115 (Law. Co-op. 1976). Unfortunately, persons who operate pleasure boats or jets skis in violation of Section 50-21-110 routinely seriously injure or kill other pleasure boaters, commercial fishermen, seamen, and swimmers.

Section 50-21-120 requires the owner of a boat livery or a business that rents, leases or charters pleasure boats, to not permit a pleasure boat to depart from his premises unless the boat is in sound and safe-operating condition, has a valid registration, properly numbered, and has the proper equipment and rules or regulations required by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the United States Coast Guard. S.C. Ann. § 50-21-120 (Law. Co-op. 1976). The owner of a boat livery business will be liable for damages or injuries, which result directly from his failure to meet the requirements of Section 50-21-120. Id. For example, an owner is liable for personal injuries caused by an unsafe-operating condition like a faulty motor or improperly maintained pleasure boat. This statute further imposes liability on the operator of a leased, rented or chartered pleasure boat for any negligent injury or damage caused by the operation of the boat as well. Id.

Section 50-21-125 requires all watercraft to slow their rate of speed to no wake speed when being operated within two hundred feet of a boat landing or ramp. S.C. Ann. § 50-21-125 (Law. Co-op. 1976). Accidents frequently occur around boat landings or ramps due to wake damage caused by both pleasure and commercial vessels passing at a too high rate of speed and with a large wake. South Carolina law requires pleasure boat operators involved in collisions are required to render to other persons affected or involved in the collision with assistance as may be practicable and as may be necessary in order to save them from or minimize any danger caused by the collision. S.C. Ann. § 50-21-130 (Law. Co-op. 1976). Under this section pleasure boat operators are also required to give their name, address, and vessel identification to any person injured and to the owner of any property damaged in the collision. Id. This section prohibits a pleasure boat operator from leaving the scene of an accident without rendering the necessary assistance to the other boaters involved in the accident and providing their identity to the other boaters.

Conclusion

A practitioner representing a client involved in a pleasure boat incident on navigable waters of South Carolina, or any other state, must now have a firm understanding and knowledge of admiralty and maritime law. The general maritime law, federal statutes and federal regulations that were previously applicable to only commercial vessels are applicable to pleasure boats as well. South Carolina statutes may also supplement admiralty and maritime law. These laws can greatly affect the outcome of a case and should be utilized in developing a litigation strategy. If the practitioner is fully aware of admiralty and maritime law, then the likelihood of achieving satisfactory results for your client is increased.

S. Scott Bluestein is a shareholder in Raley & Bluestein, P.A. of Charleston.