There is Another: Admiralty Jurisdiction and Jury Trials under 28 U.S.C. § 1873

An accepted rule in admiralty is that jury trials are the exception.[1] The most notable exceptions being cases brought through the Jones Act, or a plaintiff invoking the Savings to Suitors Clause. But a rare (and quite narrow) third exception also exists. And it’s of particular importance in the Midwest. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1873 (the “Great Lakes Act”), claimants may be entitled to a jury for certain incidents arising on (or sufficiently connected to) the Great Lakes, when the exact same incident would fall under ordinary rules for admiralty in other bodies of water. To be frank, it’s unclear why this distinction exists—why claimants operating on the Great Lakes deserve more rights than those on the oceans. But the law’s the law. It could also matter to your client.

The history behind bench trials in admiralty is far reaching. Maritime law, like much of American common law, evolved from British legal traditions. In the early American colonies, maritime issues were decided by English admiralty courts, which operated independently from the courts of law and equity. The U.S. Constitution then explicitly recognized admiralty law, providing in Article III federal jurisdiction over “all Cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”[2] But with this history, the Supreme Court long ago held that, because the Seventh Amendment applies to suits “at common law,” a distinct class from suits “in admiralty,”[3] the Constitution neither mandates nor forbids a jury trial in admiralty jurisdiction. In turn, while claimants have no constitutional right to a jury in a suit brought within admiralty jurisdiction, Congress may expressly authorize such a jury trial.[4]

As mentioned, Congress has authorized a jury trial in three situations: (1) claims under the Jones Act, (2), more generally, claims validly brought through the Savings to Suitors Clause, and (3), as discussed in this article, claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1873 (the “Great Lakes Act”). The first two are ubiquitous to many maritime attorneys. They provide the backdrop to a variety of maritime disputes in state and federal court. But the third is quite the opposite. Either because it is unnecessary or unknown, there are relatively few decisions addressing the Great Lakes Act.

A right to a jury under the Great Lakes Act requires four specific facts. First, the claim must involve a vessel of twenty tons or more; second, the vessel must be enrolled and licensed for coasting trade; third, the vessel must be involved in interstate commerce and navigation; and fourth, it must be navigating on lakes or navigable waters connecting said lakes.[5]

There are very few cases addressing the Great Lakes Act. Shortly after Congress enacted the statute, the United States Supreme Court addressed it in The Genesee Chief, holding that the statute is constitutional and the right to a jury trial is “undoubtedly secured.”[6] Since The Genesee Chief, courts have routinely upheld a claimant’s right to a jury trial through the Great Lakes Act in the few times it has been challenged.[7]

Courts have sought to define the contours of the four factors. For example, courts have held that lakes and navigable waters connecting those lakes are limited to the Great Lakes and water connecting the Great Lakes, as opposed to waterways merely connected to the Great Lakes.[8] Additionally, a court held that the Great Lakes Act may extend beyond active coasting trade and interstate commerce and navigation, even including when a vessel is undergoing repairs in dry dock, as long as the vessel remains geared towards these activities.[9]

The Jones Act and the Savings to Suitors Clause remain, by far, the prominent means to a jury trial in admiralty cases. But in a maritime dispute involving the Great Lakes, or waters connecting the Great Lakes, maritime practitioners should not forget about the potential applicability of the Great Lakes Act for purposes of securing a jury trial.

If you have questions about your maritime case, please contact the experienced admiralty and maritime attorneys at Eckland & Blando LLP.

[1]             Co-authored by Robby Dube, associate at Eckland & Blando; research and drafting assistance provided by Adrian Kipp, law clerk at Eckland & Blando LLP.

[2]              U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.

[3]             U.S. Const. amend. VII; Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. 441, 460 (1847) (“Again, suits at common law indicate a class, to distinguish them from suits in equity and admiralty; cases in admiralty another class distinguishable from both, as well as to the system of laws determining them as the manner of trial[.]”).

[4]              See e.g., Fitzgerald v. U. S. Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20-21 (1963) (“Congress in the Jones Act has declared that the negligence part of the claim shall be tried by a jury[.]”).

[5]              28 U.S.C. § 1873.

[6]              The Genesee Chief, 53 U.S. 443, 451, 459-60 (1851).

[7]         E.g., Michalic v. Cleveland Tankers, Inc., 364 U.S. 325, 331 n.4 (1960); Troupe v. Chicago, D. & G. Bay Transit Co., 234 F.2d 253, 257 (2d Cir. 1956); Turner v. Burlington N. R. Co., 771 F.2d 341, 343 (8th Cir. 1985); In re Lockheed Martin Corp., 503 F.3d 351, 354 n.2 (4th Cir. 2007).

[8]         The W. States, 159 F. 354, 356 (2d Cir. 1908); Exxon Co., U.S.A. v. Waterways Tankerman, Inc., 1979 WL 6504707 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 22, 1979).

[9]            Upper Lakes Towing Co. v. ZF Padova SpA, No. 2:08-CV-63, 2009 WL 10678326 *1-2 (W.D. Mich. Feb. 20, 2009) (While the court considered additional factors in determining 28 U.S.C. § 1873 applied, it did highlight that the vessel remained engaged in coasting trade and interstate commerce and navigation even though in dry dock for repairs).