Statutes of Limitation

The State and Federal Statutes of Limitation which Apply in Admiralty/Maritime Law, or The Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts is anything but Uniform!

Every claim has a statute of limitation applicable, which is the time within which you must file a lawsuit; after that time passes, the claim is forever time-barred from filing. The purpose is to prevent stale claims, but each statute, each state, and admiralty/maritime law have differing ideas of what is a fair time to establish a cut-off for stale claims.

In Florida, generally, someone cannot contract away a statute of limitation, meaning you cannot agree to a lesser time than that which is required by Florida Statute. For the most part, the controlling statute of limitation can be found at §95.11, et seq., Fla. Stat. In a non-maritime setting under Florida law, your statutes of limitation are five years from the breach of a written contract, four years for an oral contract, four years for general negligence, two years for wrongful death and medical malpractice, and they cannot be contracted away. In other words, you cannot agree in a contract to a lesser time. Not so in admiralty/maritime law. Read on.

To understand the statute of limitation for admiralty/maritime matters, you first have to look at The Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts (“Uniform Statute”), because maritime torts invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction, and with admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. By its terms, the Uniform Statute applies to all suits for personal injury and death “arising out of a maritime tort.” A tort becomes a maritime tort when it occurs anywhere on navigable waters with access to the sea, and when the activity resulting in injury bears a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity.

State and federal courts have held almost uniformly that the Uniform Statute is an integral part of substantive admiralty law and must be applied to all maritime tort claims, regardless of the forum in which those claims are asserted. The Uniform Statute, unlike most ordinary statutes of limitation, cannot be avoided simply by choosing one forum over another, because the Uniform Statute governs maritime tort claims, regardless of the forum in which they are asserted. Not only does the Uniform Statute establish the applicable limitation period, but it also completely displaces and supplants state law tolling provisions that might otherwise extend the limitation period. The Uniform Statute embodies Congress’ intent, as expressed in the legislative history and as confirmed by the courts, to establish a uniform limitation period for maritime torts.

The Uniform Statute provides a general three year statute of limitation barring claims arising from injury or death occurring on navigable waters during a traditional maritime activity three years after the cause of action accrues. The Uniform Statute applies to actions under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, as well as to claims by seamen for injuries based on unseaworthiness of a vessel and claims arising under general maritime tort law. 46 USC §30106 formerly at 46 USC §763a.

Although an action for maintenance and cure arises under the general maritime law, the courts have not definitively determined that it is strictly governed by the three-year Uniform Statute. Thus, the action for maintenance and cure is governed by laches, which is an unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim in a way that prejudices the opposing party.  However, litigants can expect the court to treat the three-year time limit as the measure for laches, with the burden of proof will being on the plaintiff to show his delay beyond three years was reasonable and did not prejudice the defendant.

In admiralty/maritime law, the applicable statute of limitation period can be altered by a marine contract, like a passenger ticket, in which you can typically find an agreement between you and the cruise line to shorten the statute of limitation. Congress, in codifying 46 USC §30508, formerly at46 USC §183b, has expressly authorized the parties to a contract of carriage to agree to a shorter time period than provided in 46 USC §30106. So much for a uniform statute of limitation in admiralty/maritime law! Accordingly, never being ones to let an opportunity go by to limit their liability to their passengers, the cruise lines invariably include in the fine print on all of the passenger tickets the terms under which you have to follow to file a lawsuit against them.  They say when you must file (usually within one year of the accident, and usually with a written notice requirement of six months), and they even add the onerous burden of where you must file (Miami, Florida, if it is Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, or Celebrity Cruise Lines). The Costa Concordia disaster victims had to deal with the “where” specified in their cruise ship passenger tickets being Rome, Italy; thank you Carnival Cruise Lines!

The extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, now codified at 46 USC §30101 et seq., which also is known as the Admiralty Extension Act (AEA), governs admiralty and maritime lawsuits against the United States government. The AEA provides that, where suit is brought against the United States for damage or injury done or consummated on land by a vessel in navigable waters, the Public Vessels Act (“PVA”) or the Suits in Admiralty Act (“SAA”) constitutes the exclusive remedy for all causes of action against the Government. The AEA also states that no suit may be filed against the United States until after a claim has been presented in writing to the government agency owning or operating the vessel which caused the injury or damage, and after such notice is given, no suit may be commenced against the United States until six months has elapsed. 46 USC §30101. The PVA and the SAA provide for a two year statute of limitation. See 46 USC §31103 and 46 USC §30905. In order to comply with the two year statute of limitation and the requirement that a claim be presented to the relevant agency, a claimant must present his claim to the agency within a time frame that allows him sufficient time after six months has elapsed to file suit within the two year limitation period. Again, so much for a uniform statute of limitation in admiralty/maritime law!

Under 33 USC §910 et seq., the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the right to compensation for disability is barred unless a claim is filed within one year after the injury, or within one year after the last payment of compensation where payment has been made without an award on account of the injury. 33 USC §913(a).

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) codified at 43 USC §1333 et seq., the statute of limitations of the adjacent state applies to personal injury actions where the injury occurred on structures like fixed drilling platforms located on outer continental shelf off the coast.

The above survey of the law is for informational purposes only. You cannot rely solely on the above to make your legal decisions. The law regarding statutes of limitation is not easy, and there are many nuances and exceptions. If you have been injured or suffered a loss, you need a good lawyer to ferret out the applicable statute(s) of limitation, and in a maritime setting you need a good maritime lawyer.