Navigable waters are any bodies of water that can be used in the service of interstate or foreign commerce and the transportation of goods or people. These bodies can be any open, coastal or inland waters that fit this description, including harbors, rivers and lakes.
In maritime law, it is important to define which waters meet these requirements as the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) only cover accidents that occur on navigable waters.
Since the Jones Act applies only to seamen who work aboard some manner of a marine vessel, any injury or wrongful death suffered by the individual will most likely be on navigable waters.
The LHWCA, on the other hand, covers maritime employees who do not exclusively work on a ship, including dockworkers, shipbuilders, harbor construction workers and some oil rig workers. It’s more complicated as they may not always be working on navigable waters. While the act does extend to adjoining areas used in loading and unloading of cargo or the building or repair of ships, there can be some confusion as to what constitutes navigable waters in the first place.
There is no specific language in the LHWCA specifying what are “navigable waters,” so courts must rely on past decisions to make a determination. In the case of The Daniel Ball from 1870, the Supreme Court ruled that “rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers… when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce.” They added that those rivers must form a “continued highway” between states or a foreign country.
Rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce.
The facilitation of interstate commerce was key. In their decision, they used the Grand River in Michigan as an example, stating that since the river is contained completely within the state, it is not navigable water. By extension then, any lake within a state that does not connect to a river that then flows to another state or country would also not be considered navigable waters.
In Morganti v. Lockheed Martin, a case handled by Kreindler & Kreindler, an engineer working for the defendant fell from a platform in the middle of Cayuga Lake and tragically drowned. While Cayuga Lake is contained entirely within the state of New York, it is also connected to the Erie Canal, thus making it navigable water. The defense, in part, tried to argue the accident did not occur on navigable water in an effort to avoid paying benefits under the LHWCA. Their argument was the topography of the lake made commercial shipping unprofitable and not susceptible to being used for that purpose — thus rendering it not navigable. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals of New York State disagreed with that interpretation and stated, “The question of whether it would be economically difficult to profitably use Cayuga Lake commercially is a fundamentally different question that does not affect whether the lake is capable of being used for commerce.” Their ruling was that Cayuga Lake did fall under the definition of navigable waters and ruled for the plaintiff.