SISSON V. RUBY, 497 U. S. 358 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990)

Sisson v. Ruby

No. 88-2041

Argued April 23, 1990

Decided June 25, 1990

497 U.S. 358


A fire erupted in the washer/dryer area of petitioner Sisson's pleasure yacht while it was docked at a Lake Michigan marina, destroying the yacht and damaging several neighboring vessels and the marina. Respondents filed claims against Sisson for over $275,000 in damages. Invoking a Limited Liability Act provision that limits a vessel owner's liability for any damage done without the owner's privity or knowledge to the value of the vessel and its freight, Sisson filed a petition for declaratory and injunctive relief in the Federal District Court to limit his liability to $800, his yacht's salvage value after the fire. The court dismissed the petition for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, rejecting Sisson's argument that it had, inter alia, jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), which grants district courts maritime jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The District Court has jurisdiction over Sisson's limitation claim pursuant to § 1333(1). Maritime jurisdiction is appropriate when a potential hazard to maritime commerce arises out of an activity that bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U. S. 668, 457 U. S. 675, n. 5. The first half of the test -- that there be a potential hazard to maritime activity -- is met because the fire, which began on a noncommercial vessel at a marina on a navigable waterway, could have spread to nearby commercial vessels or made the marina inaccessible to such vessels. Respondents' argument that the potential effect on maritime commerce was minimal because no commercial vessels were docked in the marina misunderstands the nature of the inquiry, which determines an activity's potential impact by examining its general character, not the actual effects on maritime commerce nor the particular facts about the incident that may have rendered it more or less likely to disrupt commercial activity. See Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland, 409 U. S. 249, Foremost, supra. In determining, as to the second half of the test, whether there is a substantial relationship between the activity giving rise to the incident and traditional maritime activity, the relevant activity in this case was the storage and maintenance of a vessel at a marina on navigable waters. A vessel's storage and maintenance is substantially related to a traditional maritime activity. Respondents' contention that navigation is the sole instance, rather

Page 497 U. S. 359

than an example, of an activity substantially related to traditional maritime activity is incorrect. Were navigation the only activity, Foremost could have stated the jurisdictional test much more clearly and economically. Moreover, a narrow focus on navigation would not serve the federal policies underlying the jurisdictional test, since the need for uniform rules of maritime conduct and liability is not limited to navigation, but extends at least to any other activities traditionally undertaken by commercial or noncommercial vessels. Pp. 497 U. S. 360-367.

867 F.2d 341, reversed and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 368.

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