Beware! Defective Appurtenances: A Discussion of the “Substantial Relationship” Requirement for Invoking Admiralty Jurisdiction in the Products Liability Context

Donald Lance Cardwell | Comment

Admiralty jurisdiction has long posed a formidable opponent to those seeking to understand its subtleties. Fortunately, perhaps, for the maritime bar, substantial issues yet remain around its murky edges that require further discourse. The determination whether a products liability claim falls within admiralty jurisdiction can, at times, lead one into uncharted waters. This Comment will attempt to shed some light into the murky corners of admiralty jurisdiction’s reach so that those far wiser may choose an enlightened path toward the smooth sailing of logical, established precedent.

To accomplish this goal, this Comment will first briefly discuss the adoption of products liability into admiralty jurisdiction. This discussion will be followed by an in-depth analysis of the Supreme Court of the United States’ formulation of admiralty jurisdiction in the tort context, which is intended to give the reader a historical lens through which to view the current approaches. Next, this Comment will highlight the three approaches used by courts today in resolving whether a products liability claim satisfies the “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity” component of the admiralty jurisdiction test.

The first approach that this Comment will discuss utilizes the activities of the manufacturer to determine whether the claim is substantially related to traditional maritime activity. The second approach shifts down the chain of events to focus on the allegedly defective product, its intended use, or the use of the object it is attached to in answering the substantial-relationship question. The third and final approach moves further down the chain of events to the activities of the user or injured party to inform whether the questioned activities warrant a claim in admiralty jurisdiction. Subsequently, this Comment will discuss the various difficulties of applying any of these approaches before ultimately utilizing traditional products liability concepts to settle on the product-centered approach.