A Sea of Confusion: The Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act as an Independent Basis for Admiralty Jurisdiction
The Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 allowed the owner of a vessel to limit his liability in the case of an accident to the value of the vessel and its cargo if he could show he had no knowledge of or participation in the negligent act that resulted in the loss. In 1911, the Supreme Court decided Richardson v. Harmon, a case which was interpreted for several decades to hold that the Limitation Act formed an independent basis for admiralty jurisdiction. In a 1990 case, the Supreme Court stated in a footnote that it would not reach the question of whether the Limitation Act was an independent basis for admiralty jurisdiction-which several Courts of Appeal took to mean that the Act’s continued vitality as a jurisdictional basis was an open question. Since that time, many Courts of Appeal have held that the Limitation Act is not, for a variety of reasons, an independent basis for admiralty jurisdiction. This Note argues that the Limitation Act continues to form an independent basis for admiralty jurisdiction. It examines the history of admiralty jurisdiction and the Limitation Act and explains why the Limitation Act should form an independent basis for admiralty jurisdiction even for cases in which the facts of the underlying tort claim might not otherwise come within the boundaries of admiralty.