Tragedies like the 2018 duck boat accident on Missouri’s Lake Table Rock are not only striking reminders of the need for extreme caution on the waterways, they highlight an often misunderstood and highly complex area of the law. Federal maritime laws and regulations govern activities on navigable waters. Does this include rivers and lakes?
What Is Maritime Law?
When people think of maritime law (if they ever do!), they associate it with activities on international waters, specifically concerning seafaring vessels such as cargo ships or cruise ships. It can be applied more broadly, however. The keyword is “navigable.”
Navigable waters are those that can accommodate commerce and transportation of goods and people.
Maritime Laws and Regulations: Lakes and Rivers
In Kaiser Aetna v. the United States, the Supreme Court determined that a waterway is navigable if it is subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, has the navigable capacity and connects to continuous interstate and/or international waterways.
The Great Lakes, for instance, are navigable: they cross borders between states and between the US and Canada and can support trade.
What is maritime law for rivers? The distinction is a bit different. As with lakes, these bodies must be able to support trade. But rivers that do not cross state or country borders may be considered navigable if they are attached to a body of water that does and that can be used for interstate or international trade.
When an incident occurs, such as the Missouri duck boat accident, jurisdiction can be difficult to determine. In this case, Lake Table Rock is considered navigable (this is up to individual courts to decide). It is likely, though, that cases involving the duck boat accident will be heard in both federal and state courts.
This underscores the complexity of maritime laws and regulations: the courts must decide if waters are navigable as well as determine jurisdictional lines. It is not always clear-cut.
Maritime laws differ dramatically from those that govern land-based activities. One such difference is that in federal court, there is no right to a jury trial, the exception being if a seaman files a claim against an employer.
The types of cases that go to federal vs state court also differ: for example, those involving personal injury, product liability, and/or damaged cargo may be heard in either federal and/or state court. Cases involving property disputes (e.g. salvage) are always heard in federal court. So, because the Table Rock accident involved personal injury, it can be tried in state court.
When you are injured or aggrieved on the water, it can be confusing – particularly if it is on a river or lake. What set of laws will apply? In which court will the case be heard? Where do you turn?
The last question is the easiest to answer: turn to an experienced maritime attorney. They can help you navigate these complex legal waters and clarify your case. This area of the law is completely different from standard personal injury or product liability; it is a highly specialized field that requires in-depth knowledge and experience. Do not settle for less than an expert in maritime laws and regulations.