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Maritime Law Found to Apply to Recreational Boating Personal Injury Claim

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Background of Case

Matthew Ficarra was a guest on Bruce Germain’s 38-foot motor boat, Game Day during an recreational excursion on the shore of Lake Oneida near Brewerton, New York. Mr. Ficarra, Mr. Germain and three others headed to Three Mile Bay, a shallow popular recreational swimming spot. After a day spent on the water, the decision was made to return to Brewerton. While Mr. Germain and others prepared the vessel for the return trip, Mr. Ficarra dove off the port side into the water. He climbed back on board and entered the water again, this time doing a back flip from the back of the boat. Mr. Ficarra struck his head on the lake floor and sustained severe injuries including serious spinal cord injury causing paralysis and quadriplegia.

Mr. Ficarra sued Mr. Germain in New York State Supreme Court, asserting claims of negligence under New York law. Mr. Germain, through his insurance company’s appointed lawyers, removed the law suit to the United States District Court for the Northern District Court of New York and filed a Petition for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. Mr. Ficarra moved to remand the action to state court and dismiss the limitation proceedings for lack of matter jurisdiction. He argued that the claims alleged in his complaint were not within the scope of federal admiralty jurisdiction.


Trial Proceedings

The trial court judge dismissed Mr. Germain’s petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction “holding that a recreational injury occurring on a recreational vessel anchored in a shallow recreation bay of navigable waters could not disrupt maritime commerce and did not bear a sufficient relationship to traditional maritime activity” and remanded the case back to New York state court.

Appellate Proceedings

The remand and dismissal was appealed. The appellate court rejected the emphasis that the trial judge placed on the recreational nature of the vessel and its passengers as well as the location of the incident in shallow waters noting that “the Supreme Court has never indicated that it matters whether the navigable waters at issue were shallow or deep.” Instead, the appellate court focused on the fact that the incident occurred on a vessel and in open water. The appellate court recognized that there are many instances where vessels sail along shallow waters and they may still effect maritime commerce, for example fishing boats or boats taking paying passengers to shallow, hard-to-reach bays for snorkeling, diving, and countless other situations. Applying the multi-part inquiry test for admiralty tort jurisdiction stated by the Supreme Court in Sisson v. Ruby, the appellate court held the underlying claim fell within the scope of admiralty tort jurisdiction because it met the location test, as it occurred on navigable waters.

Additionally, the claim met the connection test: 1) that the general type of incident has a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce; and 2) the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. Based upon this legal analysis, the appellate court found that the underlying negligence claim falls within federal admiralty jurisdiction.

This opinion highlights the fact that many injuries which occur on navigable waters are considered maritime claims. It is imperative that people injured while boating are aware that their negligent claims could be governed by maritime law as opposed to state law. Often times different damages can recovered, there could be shorter time for which claims have to be filed in court, and the boat owner may seek to limit liability under federal law.

If you were injured while recreational boating and would like to learn more about your legal rights under maritime law, feel free to contact our firm. We are an established maritime and admiralty firm exclusively focused on protecting the rights of people injured by the negligence of boat owners and operators.