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Ship Owner Cannot Limit Liability Where Passenger Slips on Ramp-MLC Fishing, Inc. v. Velez

An appellate court recently confirmed a legal rule prohibiting vessel owners from limiting their liability by invoking federal court jurisdiction. Passengers who are injured en route to a vessel are entitled to fair compensation for their injuries, even if the incident did not occur “on or over navigable waters.”

MLC Fishing, Inc. (MLC) owns the fishing vessel “Capt. Mike,” which was docked at Capt. Mike’s Marina in Howard Beach, Queens. Julio Velez wanted to go fishing as a passenger aboard Capt. Mike. Velez slipped and fell on a ramp leading from the marina to a floating dock that passengers needed to traverse to board the vessel. Velez sued MLC for injuries sustained from the fall. MLC sought to limit its liability pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act (Act), 46 U.S.C. §30501. The district court dismissed MLC’s complaint for want of subject matter jurisdiction. MLC appealed, alleging the Act provided an independent basis of jurisdiction for petitions that arose from incidents that did not occur on navigable waters. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Congress grants federal district courts jurisdiction over “any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction” pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331(1). A tort action lies within the federal district court’s admiralty jurisdiction if it satisfies both prongs of a two-part test. First, the alleged tort must have occurred on or over “navigable waters.” Second, there must be a substantial nexus between the activity giving rise to the incident and traditional maritime activity. In other words, the incident must have had a “potentially disruptive influence” on maritime commerce.

Here, Velez fell on a ramp connected to the marina. Like a pier or dock, this ramp is considered an “extension of land” for purposes of determining admiralty jurisdiction. In this case, neither the ramp nor the floating dock leading to Capt. Mike possessed the characteristics associated with maritime objects; both were extensions of land. Thus, Velez’s injury did not occur on or over navigable waters. As such, MLC could not satisfy the locality prong of two-part test to invoke admiralty jurisdiction.

Further, the Act does not provide an independent basis for federal jurisdiction over this action. The Act limits the liability of a vessel owner to the value of the vessel and pending freight in cases of loss, damage, or injury. Although the Supreme Court has declined to determine whether the Act provides an independent basis for jurisdiction, every court of appeals that has ruled on the issue has concluded it does not. Here, the district court did not address the issue, but the appellate court clarified that it would “join [its] sister Circuits” in holding the Act did not confer admiralty jurisdiction in cases where the alleged incident did not occur on or over navigable waters.

In reaching this conclusion, the court looked to the Act’s relevant statutory language and found it did not grant subject-matter jurisdiction. Rather, it was only intended to grant vessel owners a private right of action to limit their liability assuming the court otherwise had jurisdiction. If courts interpreted the Act to grant cover controversies that did not occur on navigable waters, this would exceed the scope of the constitutional grant of admiralty jurisdiction. Accordingly, the district court properly dismissed MLC’s petition to limit its liability for want of jurisdiction.

If you have suffered a shipboard injury, the experienced maritime personal injury attorneys of Anderson Connell & Carey can help. We have successfully handled hundreds of cases of shipboard injury and death. We welcome your inquiries and provide initial consultations without charge. For legal assistance, call (800) 262-8529 or contact us online.

Web Resources:

MLC Fishing, Inc. v. Velez, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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