When Air Meets the Sea: Applying Maritime and Admiralty Law to Commercial Aviation Accidents
Washingtonians and Alaskans regularly utilize both air and sea transport while traveling abroad or to reach destinations across the state. When death or injuries occur, it can be difficult to determine what legal forum to use or statute to apply. Federal case law has established that maritime law or statutes like the Death on the High Seas Act can be used by injured parties seeking compensation, regardless of the form of transportation. The recent Korean airline accident off the coast of the San Francisco Bay recalls prior federal decisions assessing how to apply maritime law to commercial aviation accidents.
The Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was an international flight that crashed on the runway of the San Francisco International Airport, which is located right beside the San Francisco Bay. Commercial airline flights may be subject to maritime jurisdiction, depending on whether there is a significant relationship to maritime activity. The Supreme Court assessed what must occur to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction in Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972). In this case a plane was flying from Cleveland, OH to a U.S. domestic location, and crashed into Lake Erie after a flock of seagulls flew into the plane. The aircraft sank in the lake, and the owners sued the city for property damage, arguing that maritime law applied since the plane sank in the navigable waters of the lake.
The Supreme Court veered from the lower courts' use of the "Locality Test", which looks at whether the wrong and injury complained about took place on the high seas or navigable waters. Instead, the court looked at instances in the history of maritime law where those injured on land were permitted recovery. Maintenance and cure, or living and medical expenses, can be recovered by those injured in the course of employment for a boat, regardless of whether it was on sea or on land. Likewise, if a vessel is deemed unseaworthy, and the unseaworthiness causes an injury on land, recovery is available under maritime law. The Supreme Court also pointed out that Congress extended the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act to include all property and personal damage caused by a vessel on navigable waters on land and on sea. Ultimately, the court looked at these legislative and judicial examples as a model to view the relationship of the injury-causing wrong to traditional maritime activity.
The experienced Washington maritime and admiralty law attorneys, John Merriam and Gordon Webb, know how to assess the complexities of your case to determine what maritime law remedies are available. Even if your injuries occurred on land, relief may be available under admiralty jurisdiction. Whether you are a crew member of a vessel or a tourist on a cruise liner, our attorneys are here to find the compensation you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call one of our Washington offices at 425.454.3800 for our Bellevue office and 206.729.5252 for our Seattle office.