Admiralty jurisdiction is an area of commerce and transportation that is subject to maritime law and the courts that preside over the cases that fall under it. The U.S. Constitution grants the power of jurisdiction to the federal courts, and in 1851, the Supreme Court ruled that admiralty jurisdiction extended to all “navigable waters.” Thus, any litigation involving an individual who is injured while on a vessel that is on or over the water would be considered admiralty jurisdiction. That includes not only ships like ocean liners, cargo ships and oil tankers but aircraft traveling over the water as well.
In airplane accidents that occur in or over navigable or territorial waters, attorneys may argue for admiralty jurisdiction in an effort to have the case moved to federal court. However, state courts have concurrent jurisdiction expressly preserved by the “savings to suitors” clause of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
The major aviation decision that first tested the waters of admiralty jurisdiction was the 1972 case Executive Jet Aviation Inc. v. City of Cleveland. During take-off, the plane struck a flock of birds and crashed into navigable waters of Lake Erie. On these facts, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that there was no admiralty jurisdiction, but the decision paved the way for the extension of admiralty’s jurisdiction over aviation tort claims. The court suggested that the location of the accident is not sufficient in itself to determine whether such jurisdiction exists, but that it would be more consistent with the history and purpose of admiralty law to also require that the wrong bear a significant relationship to a traditional maritime activity. — From the article “Planes, Trains and Admiralty Jurisdiction”
In order for an aviation accident to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction, it must pass a two-prong test of locality and nexus. Locality is simply demonstrating that the accident happened in a body of water that is used by marine vessels. Nexus refers to a relationship, or similarity, to traditional maritime activity as well as a disruption to any maritime commerce.
Despite this test, there is some dispute as to the types of aviation accidents that would fall under admiralty jurisdiction. In the American Flight 587 disaster, pilot error caused the tail section to be overstressed and break off from the fuselage. Although the plane crashed on land, the damage to the plane, that is the event which made the crash inevitable, happened over the water. This satisfied locality, and since the flight was an overseas flight, it overlapped with traditional maritime activity.
However, in the case of Asiana Flight 214, the plane crashed on its approach to the runway not because of any physical damage to the aircraft but due to a miscalculation of descent and airspeed. Similar to American 587, the plane ultimately came to rest on land, but unlike that incident, there was no wreckage in the water, and the plane was completely intact until it hit the seawall. The courts decided the question of where an accident became inevitable did not matter, nor did it matter if there was a disruption of maritime commerce by the wreckage. All that was needed to rule for admiralty jurisdiction was that the flight was transoceanic and that the injury was caused by events that occurred over, as opposed to on, navigable waters.