In February, a federal judge sent a boating accident case down to state court, arguing that, in this instance, U.S. maritime law didn’t apply. Matthew Ficarra was riding on Bruce Germain’s 38-foot boat in Oneida Lake’s Three Mile Bay, when he performed a back flip off the boat, hit his head in shallow water, and was paralyzed as a result of his injuries.
Germain claimed that federal courts had jurisdiction over the case because the case fell under U.S. maritime law. Germain sought federal jurisdiction, because, had maritime law held, Germain would have only been liable for Ficarra’s accident up to the value of the vessel. According to the New York Law Journal, the value of Germain’s vessel would have set an upper limit on the amount Germain would have to pay Ficarra.
Generally, maritime law applies to commercial vessels. Yet, maritime law can also apply in cases where accidents occur in interstate waters. Interstate waters are generally defined as navigable bodies of water that border two or more states. This means that injuries and accidents that take place in oceans, lakes, or rivers that border states can fall under admiralty law.
The judge wrote in the ruling that the accident would not have caused any disruption to commercial shipping. The fact that the body of water is located centrally in New York state and not along a border and the fact that the body of water where the accident took place isn’t frequently used by commercial shipping vessels likely resulted in the case being sent to state court.
For anyone who has been injured in a boating accident, it’s important to understand the difference between cases that fall under state law and those that can fall under admiralty law, and whether a case can be filed under both. One thing to consider is the location of the accident. Accidents that take place on lakes that aren’t on state borders and aren’t traditionally used as commercial shipping routes might be better served by taking their case to state court rather than trying to use U.S. maritime law.
Yet, are there cases where it could be beneficial to file a case under U.S. admiralty law? Certainly.
Under admiralty law, every person involved in an accident is potentially liable. This means that if two boaters are involved in an accident, and one boater is 95% at fault but is severely wounded, the injured boater can collect the 5% in damages based on the fact that the other party was 5% at fault. In cases where the injuries are severe, 5% in damages can be quite a significant amount.
Furthermore, some states require victims to be less than 50% at fault for an accident in order to collect any damages. For victims who live in these states, it may be beneficial to file a case under U.S. maritime law, rather than under state law. Moreover, under admiralty law, defendants who violate safety laws have a high burden of proof to show that the failure of the safety law could not have contributed to the accident.
Because U.S. maritime law and each state’s personal injury law statutes vary so widely, individuals are wise to seek legal counsel and contact a skilled maritime and admiralty lawyer to determine the best course of action if they have been injured as a result of a boating accident.