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Maritime Law Court Jurisdiction

Whether a maritime case is tried in federal maritime court or in state court may make a difference. The substantive law that governs the maritime claims is the same, regardless of whether a case is tried in federal or state court. However, the different forums provide different rules and involve different procedures, which can make a significant difference in how the case is tried.

Rules of Civil Procedure

Maritime cases brought in federal court are generally subject to the same Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as other federal cases. This means that federal rules govern discovery, trial procedures, and post-trial relief like other cases tried in federal court. In contrast, maritime cases tried in state court would be subject to the state court’s rules of procedure.

Key Differences Between Federal and State Court

Some key differences between the federal and state forums include the following:

  • Cases under the federal maritime jurisdiction are tried by a judge alone, while cases in state court may be tried to a jury;
  • Only a federal court can grant unique maritime remedies, such as judicial sale of an arrested vessel or maritime attachment;
  • Only a federal court can grant exoneration or limitation of a vessel owner’s liability;
  • The rules for joining parties not previously part of the case to the proceeding are more flexible for maritime cases in federal court than in most state courts;
  • The rules for determining which court has venue to try the case are different for federal maritime trials;
  • The way that the court determines if a case has been brought timely may be different in the federal court than in the state court;
  • The federal rules governing summary judgment tend to be more flexible in federal court.

While the forums may have different rules, the goal of all courts is to provide a fair trial and a just result. A compelling case should—at least in theory—come to the same result whether in federal court or state court. So, depending on the nature of the case and the particular state forum, the choice of forum may be a simple matter of preference and convenience.

Judge or Jury Trial

The general rule is that a case that is brought in federal court under the court’s maritime jurisdiction is tried by a judge alone. This is based on the historic difference between maritime courts and other courts, wherein maritime courts presided without juries and were separate from common law courts. A notable exception to this rule is when a maritime case arises under the Constitution or the laws or treaties of the United States. In that instance, a plaintiff can bring the case under the federal court’s “federal question” jurisdiction, which, depending on the statute, may permit a trial by jury.

If you or your business is involved in maritime trade, speak with a lawyer who understands the business like you do. Contact the law firm of Forrest & Kolodny, lawyers experienced in maritime law.


(image courtesy of Miguel Cardona Jr.)

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