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Drunken Brawl on Ship and Maritime Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 27, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'Drunken sailor' is probably an unfair, stereotypical label, but it works for a case that arose from a drunken brawl on the Delaware River.

Michael Bocchino was aboard a cruise vessel, the "Ben Franklin Yacht," when a fight broke out among some passengers. He didn't know who hit him, but it was enough for him to file a lawsuit in state court against the boat's owner.

The owner filed an action in federal court for lack of maritime jurisdiction, but a federal appeals court reversed. So the blurry question was, what is maritime jurisdiction for brawls anyway?

Maritime Jurisdiction

In re. the Complaint of Christopher Columbus, LLC, the yacht owner filed a limitation action under the Limitation of Vessel Owner's Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. Section 30511. The owner invoked federal jurisdiction under Article III of the U.S. Constitution for "all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction."

When it comes to maritime tort claims, the U.S Third Circuit Court of Appeals said, admiralty jurisdiction concerns the location of an incident and its connection with maritime activity.

Bocchino conceded that the brawl occurred on the river and that it involved a maritime activity. The appeals court had to decide whether it disrupted maritime commerce.

Although the facts were sketchy, the panel said there was "more than a fanciful risk to maritime commerce."

Martime Commerce

The fight could have distracted the captain and crewing, causing damage to the vessel or the pier. A docking mishap could have injured crew and passengers, the judges said.

"Finally, if the crew was sufficiently sidetracked by the altercation and unable to execute the docking maneuver, the vessel could be forced back out on the waterway with a veritable riot among the passengers," they said.

While the court spun the tale a little beyond what actually happened, it was certainly within the realm of any fish story. No offense intended to the fish.

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