On the Pulse...Our Maritime Litigation Practice Group

What is maritime law? The terms "maritime" and "admiralty" are frequently used interchangeably. "Admiralty" refers to the body of law and procedures that govern matters related to the carriage of goods or passengers on the high seas and navigable inland waters. The term "maritime," however, is a little bit more general.

Today's practice of maritime law is said to have an ancient past that dates as far back as 900 B.C. Rich with history, our journey to undercover the secrets of modern day admiralty law takes us across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Seas where a form of international law was born out of the longstanding customs of the sea. Fast forward to the late 14th Century, the English courts established a system of separate Courts of Admiralty that eventually made the quick boat ride across the Atlantic during the time England colonized North America. These courts were given the jurisdiction to hear civil cases known as "a thing done upon the sea," and this continued in the U.S. until 1966 when the courts unified....but you already knew all of this. Well, whatever its origin, it is very old indeed. Doctrines only available and recognizable to those practicing admiralty contain the true past of this ancient practice and can be found in several medieval maritime codes-or Davy Jones Locker. Contrary to urban legend, I of course only know this history by secret handshake and scrolls that were shown to me when I became a Proctor of Admiralty.

Our current maritime practice at Marshall Dennehey has grown and still takes us on a fascinating journey much like its ancient past. In less than two years, the Maritime Litigation Practice Group has extended its footprint from the New York City metropolitan area to such diverse domestic locations as Houston, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; Duluth, Minnesota; and Long Beach, California. Internationally we are in Germany, France, Asia and Somalia; not to mention taking on new cases pending in Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey.

As diverse as the geographic locations of the maritime practice, the types of representations we are handling continue to be equally as diverse.

Amongst a varied caseload, the group handles cargo subrogation cases involving onboard vessel fires, containers overboard and the damage, loss or theft of goods during carriage via various modes of transportation, such as ocean vessels, inland truckers and rail carriers. In one case a vessel lost containers overboard when the vessel rolled over and sank in Caribbean waters. Prosecuting a cargo loss of this size can take us in to several million dollars. Another maritime casualty example takes us on a voyage from east Asia to the ports of our own west coast. The cargo on this specific vessel sustained fire damage. Again, this loss involves several million dollars worth of cargo.

The liability side of our maritime practice is the area in which we have experienced the biggest growth. In the New York metropolitan area, we are defending several marine construction bodily injury cases, representing general contractors and municipalities for several agencies in the city of New York. We are defending cases brought by dock builders and long shore harbor workers. Those types of cases fall under the purview of general maritime law, the Long Shore Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, the Jones Act and New York State Labor Law. Our group has further presented lectures to the Maritime Law Association and Marine Claims & Recovery Forum on the interplay between New York Labor Law (specifically, the "scaffold law"), which is an absolute liability statute, and other traditional maritime remedies.

Traveling to new territory, we head to the City of Brotherly Love where we represent a Philadelphia port authority, a major hub of maritime activities. Some of the matters we are handling here are a mediation involving a lease dispute with one of the major marine terminal operators in the port. We work closely with their chief counsel and executive director, advising the board of directors on the best strategies and options to pursue in this dispute. We successfully defended the port in a recent lawsuit brought by a longshoreman who was injured during cargo discharge operations from a vessel at a marine terminal.

No maritime practice would be complete without a matter taking us into international waters. We recently provided an opinion letter stating that an insurer may decline coverage to a world-renowned humanitarian organization for a loss in Somalia they claimed was covered under a marine warehouse insurance policy. Somali terrorists invaded and took over the organization's warehouse, resulting in a loss of over $4 million to the organization. The insurance policy excluded losses due to acts of terrorism. Although the insured's broker argued that the loss was not a result of terrorist activity, our analysis found to the contrary. As a result of our opinion letter, the insurer declined coverage, and the insured ultimately withdrew the $4 million claim.

In New Jersey, we are defending a marine construction company in the Cape May area for a claimed defense in the design and construction of a bulkhead for a condominium association on Ludlam Bay. We are also defending against a $5 million allision claim in Duluth, Minnesota, against a ship repair company. In this matter, a 1,000 ton cargo ship hit an underwater hidden obstruction, flooding the ship's engine room and causing the ship's stern to settle to the bottom of the slip.

Our case handling also resulted in having a case dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction that was pending in federal court in New York. This case involved a products liability claim for the wrongful deaths of two operators of a high-performance power boat during a competition in which the boat was travelling in excess of 120 miles per hour when it flipped over, causing the deaths of the two operators. Our client is a Missouri resident who does no business in New York. The case is being transferred to the Federal District Court in Missouri.

The journey continues as more of Marshall Dennehey's offices are becoming actively involved in the admiralty and maritime practice like never before. In the great sunny state of Florida, attorneys from our four offices are handling several maritime matters including cargo subrogation and defense of freight forwarders. We look forward to the ever-increasing presence of our maritime group from New York to Florida and anywhere in between.

*Dan is a shareholder in our New York City office in Wall Street Plaza. He can be reached at 212.376.6432 or dgmcdermott@mdwcg.com.

Defense Digest, Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011