South Florida is the recreational boating capital of the world, it sees numerous commercial ships dock at Port Everglades, and cruise ships blast music as they depart. With the large maritime industry in South Florida issues arise between maritime-related businesses on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some of those issues escalate to litigation and an important – arguably the most important – question is: which court better suits your claim? However, before filing suit you need to determine if admiralty jurisdiction applies to your case.
Admiralty or maritime (both terms are interchangeable) matters are unique and an initial question is whether admiralty jurisdiction applies. There are nuances and exceptions, but generally a matter requires the application of the nexus test to determine if admiralty jurisdiction applies. Some matters fall squarely within admiralty jurisdiction such as an accident on navigable waters of the United States which concerns a maritime aspect – a straightforward example would be two cruise ships colliding in Port Everglades.
As to South Florida businesses, the most pertinent issue is likely a breach of contract claim. For certain breach of contract claims admiralty jurisdiction unquestionably applies. A breach of contract related to a vessel repair is within admiralty jurisdiction. However, a contract to build a vessel does not qualify for admiralty jurisdiction.
In South Florida many maritime businesses provide labor, materials, bunkers, or other provisions to yachts or vessels under contract. Issues arise when the vessel’s owner, charterer, or captain breaches the contract by not paying for the goods or reject the goods claiming the goods are not what was ordered. Other breach of contract examples are numerous such as providing uniforms for crew members, catering food, breach of warranty claims for vessel machinery, or who is entitled to a commission after a yacht sale. Each case consists of fact patterns which will determine whether admiralty jurisdiction applies.
Why would I want admiralty law to apply to my case?
If a case is subject to admiralty jurisdiction, then federal admiralty law applies to the case. Federal admiralty or maritime law is a body of law formed and molded through many years of case rulings and statutes. If admiralty law applies, then under the Supremacy Clause it will trump any competing applicable state law. It’s important to understand that admiralty or maritime law must be applied by the court – it doesn’t matter if it’s in state or federal court. Once a party triggers admiralty or maritime law, the presiding court must interpret and apply substantive federal admiralty law.
What are the pros and cons of state and federal court?
A plaintiff – or person bringing the suit – may be able to choose whether to use state or federal court. Each fact pattern and legal claim are different and both courts have their own benefits.
The benefits of federal court are a more attentive and knowledgeable judiciary. In Florida, state court judges are elected and may only deal with admiralty or maritime law a handful of times in their careers. On the other hand, the South Florida federal judges preside over many admiralty cases and often have knowledgeable law clerks assisting them. Moreover, many of the federal judges will issue rulings “on the paper” meaning that a party need not have to schedule a hearing to argue their point of law; which can result in faster rulings and less attorneys’ fees to appear in court. Also, federal judges will move a case faster through the docket or toward a trial than a state court judge.
The benefits in state court include the ability to prosecute (or defend) the case at a slower pace. Judges will hold hearings on the motions and provide an opportunity to argue a point. A slower pace may be beneficial in some circumstances such as if the matter is close to a settlement. Also, the ability of a party to calculate or add pre-judgment and post-judgment interest on a judgment may be different under state law than federal admiralty law. Further, in state court a party can use the state’s jury system. A jury or bench trial can cut both ways. As an example, a bench trial may be more beneficial if the subject matter is more technical and contract related because one is only making arguments to a judge (who deals routinely deals with contractual disputes) versus six random people with no experience.
There is no single avenue for a particular case because the facts, witnesses, and documents will be different.
We’ve handled many admiralty and maritime cases and can assist you in obtaining the best result. Please contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.