Maritime law? In Minnesota? Yes.

0921-St-Croix-River-650Why it pays to know maritime law in cases involving water-related accidents 

By Vince C. Reuter

Few Minnesota litigators would be surprised to field a call involving an accident on one of our state’s lakes or rivers. In doing so, the attorney undoubtedly begins internally checking the legal boxes: Cause of action? Causation? Damages? Statute of limitations? But one important box may unfortunately get ignored: jurisdiction. This is a mistake.

Accidents involving millions of acres of waterway in and around Minnesota are not subject to Minnesota law. And the importance of this fact is not merely academic. The impact of federal admiralty jurisdiction can, for example, create a cause of action where one does not exist under Minnesota law, or allow for contributory negligence that Minnesota law precludes; it can also arbitrarily limit potential damages to the value of the vessel involved. Admiralty jurisdiction matters in Minnesota.

This article will explain the origins and confines of federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction and look at how these rules pertain to the waterways in and around Minnesota. Second, the article will address federal maritime law itself, explaining some key features that may exclusively apply and that would potentially affect a typical personal injury case.


Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction: An overview

The Constitution grants the federal judiciary with power over “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.”1 Congress implemented this power by statute, providing that “district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States,” in “any civil case of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.”2 Neither the Constitution nor Congress specifically defined the parameters of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. That task has been left largely to courts, who interpret its limits in the context of historical meaning, U.S. geography, and (more recently) technological changes involving maritime commerce.

Admiralty jurisdiction for torts presents a two-part “locus” and “nexus” test. First, for locus, it applies to accidents occurring upon the “navigable waters of the United States,” a designation that generally means waterways that act as interstate or international “highways for commerce.”3 A key component is that it must be “navigable in fact,” which means that the waterway could support such commerce in its “ordinary condition.”4 Navigability is susceptible to change. For example, a dam may prevent boats from passing beyond a certain point, thus stripping admiralty jurisdiction for a portion (or all) of that waterway.5 Conversely, admiralty jurisdiction can be expanded through artificial bodies of water like canals or other man-made reservoirs.6

Congress expanded the locus analysis in 1948 through a causation test. The Extension of Admiralty Act provides that admiralty jurisdiction “extends to and includes cases of injury or damages, to a person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable waters, even though the injury or damages is done or consummated on land.”7 This statute may lead to interesting scenarios for litigants. For example, a car accident may fall within admiralty jurisdiction if that accident resulted from a drunk driver who has left a “booze cruise” on Lake Superior.8 

Second, with the “nexus” test, admiralty jurisdiction applies to torts that have a “potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and where the tort had a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.”9 The test is interpreted broadly. For example, accidents on pleasure boats often trigger admiralty jurisdiction because they can affect other boats engaged in maritime commerce.10 And importantly, this potential impact is examined through “its general character,” and not on any actual effects to maritime commerce.11 Likewise, “traditional maritime activity” is usually associated with a vessel on applicable waters. Accidents involving airplanes on navigable waterways, for example, would not likely fall within admiralty jurisdiction.12 


Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction: Minnesota’s 

lakes and rivers

The locus analysis may bring a few of Minnesota’s lakes or rivers immediately to mind. The two big ones are of course Lake Superior and the Mississippi River—two of the largest and most significant bodies of water in the United States. But there are many more. Regarding lakes, two that most likely fall within admiralty jurisdiction are Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, along with hundreds of smaller lakes that also border Canada or even a neighboring state. Many of these lakes have established maritime commerce—through, for example, the renting of boats for fishing or other pleasure cruises. With respect to rivers, the St. Croix River, the Minnesota River, and the Red River (either independently or through the Mississippi) all have interstate and international access. Hundreds of other smaller rivers and streams also flow into these four major rivers (or a navigable lake) and thus may also be subject to maritime jurisdiction.

In the end, because navigability depends on the potential for actual maritime commerce, admiralty jurisdiction in Minnesota may depend on where in each river or lake an accident occurred. This analysis may also apply to the Mississippi itself. In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers, through an act of Congress, closed the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam (the lock by the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis), which means that boats can no longer travel from, say, St. Cloud to St. Paul.13 Thus, an accident occurring near Elk River—unlike one near Red Wing on the Mississippi River—may now fall entirely within Minnesota’s law and jurisdiction.

The nexus analysis should also suggest the importance of recognizing admiralty jurisdiction in Minnesota. A core aspect of maritime commerce is the leasing of vessels. Thus, any time a resort or other establishment rents a boat for temporary use, they are engaging in maritime commerce. Maritime commerce is similarly implicated when a business operates its own vessel for fishing or pleasure cruises. These types of vessels may also include a crew, which itself triggers distinct maritime rights and obligations. And in the end, the operation of a pleasure boat, “no matter what its size or activity, is traditional maritime activity to which the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts may extend.”14


Maritime law: Why it matters

Admiralty jurisdiction brings with it “the application of substantive maritime law.”15 This body of law has two sources: first, federal statutes like the Jones Act16 or the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act,17 both of which apply to injured employees engaged in maritime commerce; second, general maritime law, which consists of court-fashioned rules and remedies similar to the common law adopted and maintained by state courts.18 

Examples of general maritime law claims include unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure, both of which also apply to injured employees.19 Where there is no applicable federal statute or general maritime law rule, state law can supplement any claim or defense.20 But state law can never “defeat or narrow any substantial admiralty rights of recovery,” whether from federal statute or general maritime law.21

In personal injury cases, the imposition of maritime law matters because it is often fundamentally different from Minnesota law. An employee injured while serving food in a restaurant, for example, is limited to bringing a workers’ compensation claim against his employer.22 But if that same person is instead injured serving drinks on a vessel during a dinner cruise, he is entitled to bring a negligence claim against his employer, and unseaworthiness and maintenance-and-cure claims against the boat owner, who might also be his employer.23 The latter is particularly important, because an unseaworthiness claim is based on strict liability, which provides an historically strong remedy for injured seafarers.24

Injured passengers also have increased rights under general maritime law. For example, a restaurant patron who is injured in Minnesota can only recover damages for negligence if a jury finds that her own fault is not proportionally greater than 50 percent.25 But if that same passenger is instead injured aboard a vessel on navigable waters, general maritime law allows for damages if the jury finds that she is anything less than 100 percent at fault.26 This distinction may significantly impact the risk analysis for Minnesota litigators assessing high-value claims.

A third example highlights a particularly strong defense that is unique to admiralty jurisdiction and its underlying substantive law. Over 200 years ago, Congress passed the Limitation of Liability Act—which, despite strong criticism, remains in effect today.27 The thrust of the law provides that a vessel owner can limit its liability against any claim up to “the value of the vessel and pending freight.”28 This is as meaningful at it sounds. If a severely injured passenger sues a vessel owner in a multi-million-dollar negligence claim, the owner could limit its potential liability, regardless of fault, to the arbitrary amount the boat is worth on the open market—and there is no freight on a pleasure craft. The draconian nature of this defense is lessened by a significant exception. The act only applies if the loss or damage occurred “without the privity or knowledge of the owner.”29 In summary, any time the defense is raised, it presents at least (a) significant procedure obstacles before any opportunity to litigate the merits, and (b) a preliminary hurdle regarding the vessel owner’s fault.30

In conclusion, every Minnesota litigator should recognize the potential application and impact of admiralty jurisdiction in and around Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. Indeed, upon receiving any water-related personal injury call, the first thoughts in any attorney’s mind should be (1) where is this lake or river located, and (2) what are its full and final boundaries? The attorney’s next thoughts should be how the injury relates to this waterway and maritime commerce. This initial analysis can be the most significant in the entire case. 

VINCE C. REUTER is a partner and proctor in admiralty at Eckland & Blando in Minneapolis, where he practices maritime law, government contracts, and commercial litigation. Mr. Reuter has an LL.M. in admiralty law from Tulane University Law School. 


1 U.S. Const. Art III, Sec. 2, ¶ 1.

2 28 U.S.C. §1333(a).

3 The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. 557, 563, 19 L. Ed. 999 (1870). Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995).

4 Id.

5 Livingston v. United States, 627 F.2d 165, 170 (8th Cir. 1980).

6 In re Boyer, 109 U.S. 629, 632 (1884).

7 Jerome B. Grubart, 513 U.S. at 532; U.S.C. §30101.

8 Duluth Superior Excursions, Inc. v. Makela, 623 F.2d 1251, 1254 (8th Cir. 1980).

9 Blake Marine Group v. CarVal Investors LLC, 829 F.3d 592, 597 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Jerome B. Grubart, 513 U.S. at 534).

10 Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668, 675 (1982); see also Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 363 (1990). 

11 Id.

12 Exec. Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, Ohio, 409 U.S. 249, 271 (1972).

13 Public Law No. 113-121, §2010 (6/10/2014) (“No Later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam”).

14 St. Hilaire Moye v. Henderson, 496 F.2d 973, 979 (8th Cir. 1974).

15 Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996).

16 46 U.S.C. §30104.

17 33 U.S.C. §901 et seq.

18 The Dutra Grp. v. Batterton, 139 S. Ct. 2275, 2278 (2019) (“Thus, where Congress has not prescribed specific rules, federal courts must develop the amalgam of traditional common-law rules, modifications of those rules, and newly created rules that forms the general maritime law.”) (cleaned up).

19 Britton v. U.S.S. Great Lakes Fleet, Inc., 302 F.3d 812, 815-18 (8th Cir. 2002).

20 St. Hilaire Moye, 496 F.2d at 980.

21 Id.

22 Minn. Stat. §176.001 et seq.

23 Britton, 302 F.3d at 815-18.

24 The Dutra Grp., 139 S. Ct. at 2281.

25 Minn. Stat. § 604.01, subd. 1.

26 Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 409 (1953).

27 46 U.S.C. §30501-30512. 

28 46 U.S.C. §30505.

29 Id.

30 While ultimately unsuccessful because of issues related to privity or knowledge, a vessel owner sought to limit its liability in a tragic wrongful death action involving an accident on Rainy Lake. In re Complaint of Rainy Lake Houseboats, Inc., ex rel. Exoneration from, or Limitation of, Liab., 14-cv-1373, 2015 WL 3795786 (D. Minn. 6/18/2015).