Until less than twenty years ago, admiralty tort jurisdiction existed anytime a tort occurred on or over navigable waters. The Plymouth, 70 U.S. 20 (1866). Rarely were other factors considered necessary to jurisdiction. As commerce became more complex, the maritime situs test began to produce some strange results in marginal cases. It eventually led to an attempt to assert admiralty jurisdiction over an air crash at the Cleveland, Ohio airport. When that case reached the Supreme Court in Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U. S. 249 (1972), the test for applying maritime jurisdiction to torts was significantly changed. In addition to the maritime situs requirement, the court added the requirement of a maritime "nexus." Thereafter, admiralty jurisdiction extended to torts occurring on navigable waters if the activity involved or the wrong done bore a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.
In the Fifth Circuit case of Kelly v. Smith, 485 F.2d 520 (5th Cir. 1973), the court established four factors to be considered in determining whether a cause of action satisfies the "nexus" test of Executive Jet:
- The functions and roles of the parties
- The type of vehicles and instrumentality's involved
- The causation and type of injury
- The traditional concepts of the role of admiralty law
Although Kelly v. Smith involved an injury to the operator of a small pleasure boat, there remained a question as to the extent to which maritime jurisdiction would apply to cases involving pleasure craft. This doubt was resolved in Foremost Insurance Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (1982), which involved the collision of two pleasure boats on a navigable river in Louisiana. Affirming the application of admiralty jurisdiction, the Supreme Court stated that although the primary focus of admiralty jurisdiction is the protection of maritime commerce, the federal interest in protecting commerce cannot be adequately served if admiralty jurisdiction is restricted to those individuals actually engaging in commercial activity. Thus, although the activity need not be commercial, it must bear a relationship to traditional maritime activity. As such, where pleasure boat accidents involve activities that might impact upon maritime commerce, maritime jurisdiction applies.
In 1990, the Supreme Court again considered the contours of maritime tort jurisdiction. In Sission v. Ruby, 497 U. S. 358, 110 S.Ct. 2892, 111 L.Ed. 2d 292 (1990), the Supreme Court held that jurisdiction under the general maritime law exists if the accident occurred on or in navigable waters and there is a substantial relationship between the activity giving rise to the incident and traditional maritime activity. The relevant activity is determined by focusing on the general conduct or character of the activity from which the incident arose, rather than particular circumstances surrounding the incident. It is noteworthy, however, that the Fifth Circuit continues to determine whether maritime tort jurisdiction exists upon the factors set out in Kelly v. Smith.
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