Problems Arising from the Intersection of Traditional Maritime Law and Aviation Death and Personal Injury Liability

On July 28, 1968, an airplane owned and operated by Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. struck a flock of gulls as it was taking off from Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. The plane lost power, crashed, and ultimately sank in the navigable waters of Lake Erie. The suit for property damage to the plane's hull eventually reached the United States Supreme Court as Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, which held that certain aspects of aviation liability are governed by maritime law. The United States Constitution vests the Supreme Court with exclusive power to establish the substance of admiralty and maritime law, including the rules that govern admiralty proceedings and the remedies that are available to admiralty claimants. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the federal courts of the United States, granted those courts exclusive original admiralty and maritime jurisdiction over all causes of action arising from navigable waters.

Prior to Executive Jet, courts determined the existence of maritime jurisdiction by applying the “locality test,” which identified the “locality of the wrong.” In acknowledging substantial criticism of a mechanical application of the locality test, the Executive Jet Court “concluded that maritime locality alone is not a sufficient predicate for admiralty jurisdiction in aviation tort cases.” Therefore, despite the broad language of prior cases like The Plymouth, the Court stated: “It is far more consistent with the history and purpose of admiralty to require also that the wrong bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. We hold that unless such a relationship exists, claims arising from airplane accidents are not cognizable in admiralty ....”

The Supreme Court thus established that maritime jurisdiction and, therefore, maritime law are applicable to aviation accidents in which the crash occurs in navigable waters and in which a significant relationship exists between the wrong and a traditional maritime activity. Once it is determined that maritime law governs the case, the issue of which maritime law to apply is raised. Traditionally, the law of admiralty, or maritime law, has been defined as “a corpus of rules, concepts, and legal practices governing certain centrally important concerns of the business of carrying goods and passengers by water.” Although admiralty law has evolved over many centuries, it “is not created in a vacuum; legislation has always served as an important source of both common law and admiralty principles.” Two important legislative changes in the general maritime law occurred in 1920 when Congress passed both the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) and the Jones Act.

As the Executive Jet Court noted, “under the Death on the High Seas Act, a wrongful-death action arising out of an airplane crash on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of a State may clearly be brought in a federal admiralty court.” Thus, general maritime law would apply to an accident involving an aircraft over navigable waters only if the flight had a traditional maritime nexus. However, DOHSA is applicable to any claim for wrongful death, even if the act giving rise to the suit had no relationship to traditional maritime activity, as long as the fatal injury occurred over the high seas.