Coast Guard Rescues Two Stranded at Sea on Recreational Vessel

Two distressed men were rescued after being stranded at sea off the coast of Penn Cove, Washington. The recreational vessel had been blown away from shore with no engine or means of propulsion. The boat was fighting against 40-knot winds and 5-8 foot swells. The men and a dog were rescued by a helicopter and did not have any injuries. Damage to the boat was not reported.

Damages to a pleasure craft or injuries to passengers on-board sometimes have different legal remedies than one might find at state court for actions on land or for other vessels at sea. Pleasure crafts or recreational vessels may look to admiralty court for relief if the accident occurred in navigable waters or the tort has a nexus in maritime activities.

A case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Delta Country Ventures, Inc. v. Don Magana, 986 F.2d 1260 (9th Cir. 1993), provides the guidelines of what type of complaint has subject matter jurisdiction in admiralty court. The facts leading up to this case began with a boy who dove from a boat owned by a recreational leasing company leased to a friend of the boy. The boy hit a rock and sustained serious injuries and was diagnosed a quadriplegic.

The leasing company filed a complaint seeking admiralty jurisdiction, exoneration, and limitation of liability under applicable statutes. The boy sued in state court to recover damages from the leasing company, the family who leased the boat, and from other public entities. He moved to dismiss the leasing company's federal court claim, and the lower court agreed. The leasing company then appealed the decision, insisting that they have subject matter jurisdiction.

The leasing company was seeking to limit their liabilities under 46 U.S.C. App., Section 183. That section states that the liability of the owner shall not, except for reasons delineated in subsection (b), exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in such vessel. For this limitation to apply, the case had to be considered in Federal District Court which is the only forum where cases arising from admiralty or maritime jurisdiction can be heard. Admiralty jurisdiction is appropriate "when a 'potential hazard to maritime commerce arises out of activity that bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.' " Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, at 362 (1990).

Sisson is a landmark decision where the U.S. Supreme court established that not every accident that occurs in navigable waters is one that falls under maritime or admiralty jurisdiction. Both the District and Appellate court held, per Sisson, there must be a connection between the activity that led to the accident and maritime activities that involve commerce in navigable waters. Both courts saw the activity as diving off a pleasure boat, and that the pleasure boat was not participating in traditional maritime activities.

The Appellate Court looked to a four part test established prior to the Sisson decision that examined 1) the historical concepts of admiralty law, 2) the function and role of the parties, 3) the types of vehicles and instrumentalities involved, 4) the causation and nature of the injury suffered. The 9th Circuit determined that this test survived the Supreme Court decision and relies on this analysis in similar types of accidents.

Determining whether property damage or bodily injury should be litigated in federal or state court is an involved analysis. Recreational boat accident attorneys John Merriam and Gordon Webb have several years of experience litigating admiralty claims and can determine what is the best and appropriate course of action for your case. Like the injured child in Delta v. Magana, the amount of your damages can change depending on where your case is heard. If you have been injured on a recreational vessel or sustained property damage, contact one of our offices for a free consultation.

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