Sometimes, accidents on bodies of water, such as the Mississippi River, are governed by a unique set of federal laws, instead of state laws. This is known as admiralty jurisdiction. This special type of jurisdiction is important for many residents of Louisiana, especially those in coastal cities like New Orleans, because of the number of water-based industries that thrive including recreation, fishing, shipping and other port or dock-based maritime activities.
In order for an accident to fall under admiralty tort jurisdiction, the “locality plus nexus” test must be satisfied. The test has two requirements: The accident (1) “must occur on or over navigable waters” (i.e., locality) and (2) “must ‘bear a significant relationship to the traditional maritime activity’” (i.e. nexus). These requirements are put in place to strictly define applicable events as those in the operation of the boat and not the variety of other water-based accidents or situations that can arise that the law is not trying to incorporate.
In order to meet the locality requirement, the accident does not need to occur on water. Rather, the accident can occur on land, as long as the accident “is at least caused by a vessel on navigable waters.” Case law has established that “federal admiralty jurisdiction extends to the means of ingress and egress [to the vessel], including but not limited to the [vessel’s gangway.]”
In order to satisfy the nexus requirement, the maritime activity doesn’t need to be exclusively commercial. Rather, the courts attempts to determine (1) “whether the incident has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and (2) “whether the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to the traditional maritime activity.”
An example of admiralty jurisdiction occurs in the Louisiana case of Thomey v. Weber Marine. In Thomey, Cargill, Inc., contracted with the company Weber Marine to provide transportation across the Mississippi River for Cargill’s employees. Cargill employed the plaintiff “as a maritime worker [for] loading and unloading grain barges and ships on a mid-stream grain transfer facility.”
At the time of the accident, the landing area used for boarding Weber Marine’s transportation vessel “was covered with approximately 30 feet of ankle to knee-deep water due to the seasonal rise in the river’s water level.” To allow dry access to the vessel’s gangway, Weber Marine placed three wooden pallets and a six foot board in the water. The plaintiff, while attempting to board the vessel for work, then “slipped and fell as he attempted to step onto one of the wooden pallets.”
The court held that the accident fell under admiralty tort jurisdiction. The court stated the locality requirement was satisfied because “the pallets served as a makeshift means of ingress and egress to the” vessel, even though they weren’t physically connected to the gangway. Additionally, the court supported this idea of expanded locality by noting that “many employees routinely used wooden pallets to access the gangway when the water level was high.”
The court also found the nexus requirement satisfied because it “substantially impact[ed] an activity essential to commercial shipping, i.e., the loading and unloading of vessels in commerce”–even though the accident occurred on the shore side. The court reasoned that the “failure to provide a safe means of ingress and egress exposes employees to injury” and impacts their ability to arrive timely–if at all–at work. Furthermore, the court noted that transporting “river workers from shore to ship is inherently maritime[.]”
Determining whether an accident is governed by admiralty jurisdiction’s unique set laws depends on the facts of each case. In order to know whether a person’s rights are determined by Louisiana or federal admiralty law, legal representation is essential.