Equitable Personification: A Review of Res Judicata’s Historical Application to Successive In Personam and In Rem Admiralty Actions in the United States

Bradley J. Schwab | Comment

From time to time, multiple claims arise out of a single transaction or event. This occurrence is especially common in maritime cases, where a single tort or breach of contract often entitles a plaintiff to both an in personam claim against the responsible party and an in rem claim against the vessel itself. However, for both practical and economic reasons, admiralty claimants do not always pursue both of these distinct remedies when first seeking relief. The doctrine of res judicata dictates that after a court renders a valid and final judgment on the merits concerning a particular claim, that judgment precludes the plaintiff from bringing any subsequent cause of action against the same defendant that was brought or could have been brought in the first proceeding. Surprisingly, not many admiralty cases have addressed the applicability of res judicata to successive in personam and in rem actions in the United States. A comprehensive examination of the few decisions on this issue illustrates that the outcome of these cases largely depends on whether the claimant was successful in the first proceeding. Because this trend appears unjustifiable under a strict view of res judicata, its explanation must lie somewhere else.Undoubtedly, the most fundamental concept justifying maritime liens and in rem arrest procedure in the United States is the notion that a vessel is a legal entity distinct from its owner. This legal fiction, also known as the theory of vessel personification, pervades all aspects of U.S. admiralty law and remains essential to the proper functioning of our country’s maritime industry. Since the early 1900s, however, the personification theory has come under fire from both academics and the judiciary. Examining the application of res judicata to successive in personam and in rem actions provides insight into this longstanding debate, because these determinations largely depend on the degree the court views in personam and in rem actions as fundamentally different. Thus, although res judicata determinations in admiralty actions have been relatively rare in the past, this topic has far broader implications. Furthermore, the numerous adverse events that currently plague the global shipping industry may bring such issues to the forefront of admiralty law in the near future.

This Comment will first broadly explore the principles underlying the doctrine of res judicata. Second, it will introduce the overall conceptual framework of the vessel personification theory in the United States. Third, it will survey the American judiciary’s historical approach to analyzing res judicata cases that involve successive admiralty in personam and in rem actions. Finally, it will scrutinize this approach by questioning its legal groundings, evaluating its appropriateness in light of the available alternatives, and suggesting relevant considerations to guide future decisions. The Comment concludes with the opinion that the judiciary’s current practice of selectively applying the personification theory is the most appropriate manner to decide these cases. However, it warns that the continued failure to acknowledge equity’s role in these decisions may eventually have disastrous consequences.