Federal Court Hears Shark Bite Negligence Claim Under Its Admiralty Jurisdiction
A Federal trial court has found Admiralty jurisdiction existed over a negligence claim concerning a SCUBA diver bitten by a shark. The diver alleged in the complaint that the dive master took a group of divers aboard the dive boat Cetus Specula out into the Pacific Ocean for an out-of-cage shark diving expedition. At the site, the dive master chummed the water and then hand-fed the sharks dead fish. The diver claims that the dive master was intoxicated and directed her to an unsafe area. While feeding the shark the dive master held a dead fish which led a Mako shark directly towards the diver which prompted the shark to bite her.
The diver filed a lawsuit against the dive master, his company, the company he charted the dive boat from and the dive boat Cetus Specula in rem alleging that there was operational negligence of the dive expedition. The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that the Federal court lacked admiralty jurisdiction to hear the case. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction meaning that if the lawsuit is a type that does not fall within the categories of claims authorized by the United States Constitution of Federal law, the Federal court must dismiss the claim. Both Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution and Federal law authorize Federal courts to hear admiralty claims.
In order for admiralty jurisdiction to exist, the facts of the claim must satisfy what is known as the locality and the nexus tests.
The locality test is meet if the negligent activity or injury occurred upon navigable waters. “Navigable waters” is defined by the courts as any waterway capable of being used for interstate or foreign maritime commerce. As the shark bite occurred in the Pacific Ocean, the locality test was meet thereby leaving the nexus test to be analyzed.
The nexus test is much harder to establish. This test requires: (1) the incident has the potentially disrupt or impact on maritime commerce; and, (2) the activity giving rise to the subject incident shows a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity. A personal injury requiring medical attention out at sea is commonly found to have the potential to disrupt maritime commerce as it is possible that other vessels in the area may have to be diverted to assist the injured person or, in diving cases, collect other divers in the water while the injured diver is being transported back to shore. The only issue left before the court is whether the subject activity shows a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity.
The dive master argued that the activity should be characterized simply as “swimming with fish” and, therefore, no connection with a traditional maritime activity could be found. The diver, on the other hand, argued that the dive master operates a shark diving expedition business wherein he charters boats and ferries passengers out to dive sites in the ocean. Such actives are traditionally maritime. The Federal court agreed with the diver’s argument. Finding that both the “locality” and “nexus” tests have been met, the Federal court determined admiralty jurisdiction exists and allowed the claim to proceed.
This case highlights the existence of admiralty jurisdiction often times depends upon how a claim is plead. If the diver simple alleged the negligence conduct occurred by improper feeding of the sharks instead of operational negligence of the vessel, the court would most likely find it lacked jurisdiction.