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By Daniel Stanton

As fundamental as the concept of jurisdiction might be, it is often assumed to exist and therefore glazed over in a plaintiff’s petition or a defendant’s notice of removal. But jurisdiction is one of the foundational elements upon which our judicial systems, both state and federal, are built. Thus, it is a necessary element of every case that has ever been – whether it is addressed in a written opinion or not. Often bound up with the issue of jurisdiction is the thornier issue of the substantive law applicable to a case. And, the law that prevails may be the difference between the life and death of a case. Recently, in the case of Frickey v. Shell Pipeline Company, L.P., No. 15-4884 (Nov. 14, 2016), the Eastern District of Louisiana reminded us of the importance of a court’s jurisdictional basis and law that accompanies that determination.

Plaintiff in this case was a commercial crabber who spent much of his life plying the waters of South Louisiana for sport and trade. On the night of March 21, 2014, Plaintiff was piloting his 16-foot mud boat on a frogging outing with a friend. At approximately 8:30 p.m. that evening while traveling through the Avondale Ring Canal (aka “Marcello’s Canal”) in search of his quarry, Plaintiff’s boat struck a submerged pipeline belonging to Shell. The pipeline was marked by an unlit, but large and reflective sign warning of the presence of a submerged petroleum pipeline. Plaintiff was allegedly injured during the allision and subsequently filed suit on September 30, 2015, in the EDLA invoking the court’s admiralty and diversity jurisdiction.

The issue of the court’s jurisdiction came into question on a motion for summary judgment filed by Shell seeking the dismissal of Plaintiff’s suit for lack of jurisdiction. And at first glance, admiralty jurisdiction may have seemed obvious: a fisherman, hurt on a vessel while traveling over water. But the question of the existence of admiralty jurisdiction is not so easily determined. Starting at the beginning, the court explained that its admiralty jurisdiction flows forth from Article III of the U.S. Constitution in which federal district courts were vested with jurisdiction over cases of “admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.” And quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, the primary purpose of federal admiralty jurisdiction is to “protect commercial shipping.” With this goal in mind, a two-part test for determining whether admiralty jurisdiction exists over a tort action has been developed, but in its evaluation of Plaintiff’s claim, the district court did not make it past the first requirement: the tort must occur on navigable waters or be caused by a vessel on navigable waters.

Considering the Avondale Ring Canal, the court found the canal to not be a navigable waterway. To be a navigable waterway, the waterway must be used or must be capable of being used in its ordinary condition as a “highway for commerce.” An artificial canal can be a navigable water body if it connects ports and places in different states as part of a “highway of commerce.” But the courts of the Eastern District have previously found that drainage ditches that provide outlets for rainwater are not navigable waterways. As can be seen in the repetitive use of the word by the court, navigability is “inexorably” tied to being susceptible to use for commercial purposes. The evidence produced in this case demonstrated that the Avondale Ring Canal was a manmade drainage canal on private property. It had been constructed for the sole purpose of water drainage and flood protection. And of pivotal importance, as a result of its shallow depth and debris littered bed, it had no capacity to support commerce. Plaintiff produced no evidence that the Avondale Ring Canal had ever been used to support commerce or had ever been determined to be a “navigable” waterway by any government entity. Plaintiff simply failed to produce any evidence that would support the contention that the Avondale Ring Canal did support or was susceptible of supporting commerce. Because the Plaintiff’s alleged injury did not occur on a navigable waterway, the court did not possess admiralty jurisdiction and could not apply substantive maritime law.

In addition to admiralty jurisdiction, Plaintiff also invoked the court’s diversity jurisdiction because all of the parties were citizens of different states. But with diversity jurisdiction comes the application of the host state’s prescriptive periods. And in Louisiana, torts have a one-year prescriptive period as opposed to the three-year prescriptive period for maritime personal injury actions. Plaintiff’s suit was filed more than a year after his alleged injury. Therefore, the suit was time barred under Louisiana law, and the court, after finding that admiralty jurisdiction did not exist and therefore maritime law did not apply, dismissed Plaintiff’s case in its entirety.

As the plaintiff in this case learned, jurisdiction is a pivotally-important element of any case. Not only can it determine which court can hear a plaintiff’s case, but in some instances it may also dictate the law applicable to the plaintiff’s claims. And, especially in cases of personal injuries occurring on the often shallow waters of South Louisiana, it may determine whether a plaintiff has a case at all.