Pirates of the Law
A client once called Maritime Practice Group Chair John M. Allen and asked him to seize a barge full of scrap metal that was temporarily docked in the St. Louis harbor on its way down to New Orleans.
Wait — seize a barge?
“No problem,” John replied. For a maritime lawyer, what often sounds like high-seas adventure is all in a day’s work, really.
Citing the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims, John appeared before a federal judge in the Eastern District of Missouri and asked for an order to seize the barge. Despite the large number of maritime claims litigated in the St. Louis area, John found himself explaining to a seasoned judge the court’s authority to issue an order to arrest. Upon obtaining the order, John took it to the U.S. Marshal Service for execution — where he had to explain the basis for the arrest and the specific procedure the Marshal Service would need to follow to stay in line with federal regulations.
To John, explaining the ins and outs of maritime law is simply another day at the office. “To this day my colleagues ask me how we can get a judge to order the U.S. Marshal to seize something like a boat or a barge,” says John. “For people in the maritime space, it’s not that uncommon — but it’s certainly unique to this area of law.”
Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is one of the oldest bodies of law in U.S. It is the collection of laws and regulations governing events that take place on or near the water — and it impacts more businesses and industries than most would assume. These laws apply to everything from business operations like shipping and construction to leisure activities like boating and fishing. The wide range of events covered by maritime law requires attorneys to have knowledge of multiple practice areas such as workers’ compensation, environmental law, toxic torts, and insurance law. Understanding the nuances of how things like negligence and exposure are applied differently to on-the-water claims drives the need for this niche practice area.
The federal government has enacted numerous laws and regulations pertaining to water-based business operations. While certain regulations, such as the Clean Water Act, require a maritime attorney to approach cases from an environmental or toxic tort perspective, other statutes, such as the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, require a different area of focus.
“The laws that govern those who are injured on or near the water are different than other land-based legal schemes,” says John as he explains the key differences between water- and land-based workers’ compensation matters. “The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act provides no-fault benefits to certain employees who work on or near the water, just like standard workers’ compensation claims. Meanwhile, under the Jones Act, injured workers have to prove that the employer’s negligence caused the injury. However, a Jones Act seaman only has to prove that the employer’s negligence played a part, no matter how small, in causing the injuries. We refer to this as a ‘featherweight’ causation — meaning that even if the employer’s negligence was just a 1 percent cause of injury, in the factfinder’s eyes the employer can be held liable.”
Along with understanding the subtle but crucial differences in the legal landscape that governs maritime claims, attorneys must also prepare for the scope of matters to grow quickly. “If you’re talking about an accident on a major waterway like the Mississippi or Ohio River, the impact can be catastrophic and involve a lot of different parties,” explains John. “Say you have a tugboat pushing multiple barges up the river and those barges hit a pier. You initially have two parties involved — the tug company and the dock owner. Then you have the barges, often owned by multiple companies, and filled with products owned by even more companies. You can easily be dealing with four or more parties in a single incident, and often do.”
The tendency of claims to involve multiple parties headquartered throughout the U.S. can cause additional hurdles for maritime attorneys, who are often located in and focused on one specific geographic area. In establishing Goldberg Segalla’s Maritime Practice Group, John looked to capitalize on the firm’s multi-state operations. “Our geographic footprint sets us apart. We can handle claims everywhere — on and around inland waterways like the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, up north on the Great Lakes, east in the Atlantic, and south in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The combination of geographic reach and in-depth experience allows the firm’s Maritime team to seamlessly handle complicated, large-scale maritime claims. “When you’re dealing with business on the water, you need a firm that understands the nuances of maritime law and knows how to handle the unique issues that arise, often unexpectedly,” says John.
And what about those times when the sudden need for a vessel seizure comes up?
“Whether you’re standing in the courtroom or walking along the docks,” John adds, “your client is counting on you to be on your toes and ready to protect their interests.”