Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland
409 U.S. 249 (1972)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972)

Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland

No. 71-678

Argued November 15, 1972

Decided December 18, 1972

409 U.S. 249




Petitioners, invoking federal admiralty jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), brought suit for damages resulting from the crash-landing and sinking in the navigable waters of Lake Erie of their jet aircraft shortly after takeoff from a Cleveland airport. The District Court dismissed the complaint for lack of admiralty jurisdiction on the grounds that the alleged tort had neither a maritime locality nor a maritime nexus. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the first ground.

Held: Neither the fact that an aircraft goes down on navigable waters nor that the negligence "occurs" while the aircraft is flying over such waters is sufficient to confer federal admiralty jurisdiction over aviation tort claims, and, in the absence of legislation to the contrary, such jurisdiction exists with respect to those claims only when there is a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. Therefore, federal admiralty jurisdiction does not extend to aviation tort claims arising from flights like the one involved here between points within the continental United States. Pp. 409 U. S. 253-274.

448 F.2d 151, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 409 U. S. 250

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

On July 28, 1968, a jet aircraft, owned and operated by the petitioners, struck a flock of seagulls as it was taking off from Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, adjacent to Lake Erie. As a result, the plane lost its power, crashed, and ultimately sank in the navigable waters of Lake Erie, a short distance from the airport. The question before us is whether the petitioners' suit for property damage to the aircraft, allegedly caused by the respondents' negligence, lies within federal admiralty jurisdiction.

When the crash occurred, the plane was manned by a pilot, a co-pilot, and a stewardess, and was departing Cleveland on a charter flight to Portland, Maine, where it was to pick up passengers and then continue to White Plains, New York. After being cleared for takeoff by the respondent Dicken, who was the federal air traffic controller at the airport, the plane took off, becoming airborne at about half the distance down the runway. The takeoff flushed the seagulls on the runway, and they rose into the airspace directly ahead of the ascending plane. Ingestion of the birds into the plane's jet engines caused an almost total loss of power. Descending back toward the runway in a semi-stalled condition, the plane veered slightly to the left, struck a portion of the airport perimeter fence and the top of a nearby pickup truck, and then settled in Lake Erie just off the end of the runway and less than one-fifth of a statute mile offshore. There were no injuries to the crew, but the aircraft soon sank and became a total loss.

Invoking federal admiralty jurisdiction under 28

Page 409 U. S. 251

U.S.C. § 1333(1), [Footnote 1] the petitioners brought this suit for damages in the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio against Dicken and the other respondents, [Footnote 2] alleging that the crash had been caused by the respondents' negligent failure to keep the runway free of the birds or to give adequate warning of their presence. [Footnote 3] The District Court, in an unreported opinion, held that the suit was not cognizable in admiralty and dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Relying primarily on the Sixth Circuit precedent of Chapman v. City of Grosse Pointe Farms, 385 F.2d 962 (1967), the District Court held that admiralty jurisdiction over torts may properly be invoked only when two criteria are met: (1) the locality where the alleged tortious wrong occurred must have been on navigable waters; and (2) there must have been a relationship between the wrong and some maritime service, navigation, or commerce on navigable waters. The District Court found that the allegations of the petitioners' complaint satisfied neither of these criteria. With respect to the locality of the alleged wrong, the court stated that

"the alleged negligence became operative upon the aircraft while it was over the land, and, in this sense,

Page 409 U. S. 252

the 'impact' of the alleged negligence occurred when the gulls disabled the plane's engines [over the land]. . . . From this point on, the plane was disabled, and was caused to fall. Whether it came down upon land or upon water was largely fortuitous."

Alternatively, the court concluded that the wrong bore no relationship to maritime service, navigation, or commerce:

"Assuming . . . that air commerce bears some relationship to maritime commerce when the former is carried out over navigable waters, the relevant circumstances here were unconnected with the maritime facets of air commerce. The claimed 'wrong' in this case was the alleged failure to keep the runway free of birds and the failure to adequately warn the pilots of their presence upon the end of the runway. When the alleged negligence occurred, and when it became operative upon the aircraft, all the parties were engaged in functions common to all air commerce, whether over land or over sea."

". . . Thus, the conclusion here must be that the operative facts of the claim in this case are concerned with the land-connected aspects of air commerce, namely, the maintenance and operation of an airport located on the land and the dangers encountered by an aircraft when using its runways for take-off."

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed on the ground that "the alleged tort in this case occurred on land before the aircraft reached Lake Erie. . . ." 448 F.2d 151, 154 (1971). Hence, that court found it "not necessary to consider the question of maritime relationship or nexus discussed by this court in [Chapman]." Ibid. We granted certiorari to consider a seemingly important question affecting the jurisdiction of the federal courts. 405 U.S. 915 (1972).

Page 409 U. S. 253


Determination of the question whether a tort is "maritime," and thus within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts, has traditionally depended upon the locality of the wrong. If the wrong occurred on navigable waters, the action is within admiralty jurisdiction; if the wrong occurred on land, it is not. As early as 1813, Mr. Justice Story, on Circuit, stated this general principle:

"In regard to torts, I have always understood that the jurisdiction of the admiralty is exclusively dependent upon the locality of the act. The admiralty has not, and never (I believe) deliberately claimed to have, any jurisdiction over torts except such as are maritime torts, that is, such as are committed on the high seas or on waters within the ebb and flow of the tide."

Thomas v. Lane, 23 F.Cas. 957, 960 (No. 13,902) (CC Me.). See also De Lovio v. Boit, 7 F.Cas. 418, 444 (No. 3,776)(CC Mass. 1815); Philadelphia, W. & B. R. Co. v. Philadelphia & Havre de Grace Steam Towboat Co., 23 How. 209, 64 U. S. 215 (1860). Later, this locality test was expanded to include not only tidewaters, but all navigable waters, including lakes and rivers. The Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh, 12 How. 443 (1852).

In The Plymouth, 3 Wall. 20, 70 U. S. 35, 70 U. S. 36 (1866), the Court essayed a definition of when a tort is "located" on navigable waters:

"[T]he wrong and injury complained of must have been committed wholly upon the high seas or navigable waters, or at least the substance and consummation of the same must have taken place upon these waters to be within the admiralty jurisdiction. . . ."

"* * * *

Page 409 U. S. 254


". . . The jurisdiction of the admiralty over maritime torts does not depend upon the wrong having been committed on board the vessel, but upon its having been committed upon the high seas or other navigable waters."

". . . Every species of tort, however occurring, and whether on board a vessel or not, if upon the high seas or navigable waters, is of admiralty cognizance."

The Court has often reiterated this rule of locality. [Footnote 4] As recently as last Term, in Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law,404 U. S. 202, 404 U. S. 205, we repeated that

"[t]he historic view of this Court has been that the maritime tort jurisdiction of the federal courts is determined by the locality of the accident, and that maritime law governs only those torts occurring on the navigable waters of the United States."

This locality test, of course, was established and grew up in an era when it was difficult to conceive of a tortious occurrence on navigable waters other than in connection with a waterborne vessel. Indeed, for the traditional types of maritime torts, the traditional test has worked quite satisfactorily. As a leading admiralty text has put the matter:

"It should be stressed that the important cases in admiralty are not the borderline cases on jurisdiction; these may exercise a perverse fascination in the occasion they afford for elaborate casuistry, but the main business of the [admiralty] court involves claims for cargo damage, collision, seamen's injuries and the like -- all well and comfortably within the circle, and far from the penumbra."

G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty 24 n. 88 (1957).

Page 409 U. S. 255

But it is the perverse and casuistic borderline situations that have demonstrated some of the problems with the locality test of maritime tort jurisdiction. In Smith & Son v. Taylor,276 U. S. 179 (1928), for instance, a longshoreman unloading a vessel was standing on the pier when he was struck by a cargo-laden sling from the ship and knocked into the water where he was later found dead. This Court held that there was no admiralty jurisdiction in that case, despite the fact that the longshoreman was knocked into the water, because the blow by the sling was what gave rise to the cause of action, and it took effect on the land. Hence, the Court concluded, "[t]he substance and consummation of the occurrence which gave rise to the cause of action took place on land." 276 U.S. at 276 U. S. 182. In the converse factual setting, however, where a longshoreman working on the deck of a vessel was struck by a hoist and knocked onto the pier, the Court upheld admiralty jurisdiction because the cause of action arose on the vessel. Minnie v. Port Huron Terminal Co.,295 U. S. 647 (1935). See also The Admiral Peoples,295 U. S. 649 (1935).

Other serious difficulties with the locality test are illustrated by cases where the maritime locality of the tort is clear, but where the invocation of admiralty jurisdiction seems almost absurd. If a swimmer at a public beach is injured by another swimmer or by a submerged object on the bottom, or if a piece of machinery sustains water damage from being dropped into a harbor by a land-based crane, a literal application of the locality test invokes not only the jurisdiction of the federal courts, but the full panoply of the substantive admiralty law as well. In cases such as these, some courts have adhered to a mechanical application of the strict locality rule and have sustained admiralty jurisdiction despite the lack of any connection between the wrong and traditional

Page 409 U. S. 256

forms of maritime commerce and navigation. [Footnote 5] Other courts, however, have held in such situations that a maritime locality is not sufficient to bring the tort within federal admiralty jurisdiction, but that there must also be a maritime nexus -- some relationship between the tort and traditional maritime activities, involving navigation or commerce on navigable waters. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, for instance, in the Chapman case, where a swimmer at a public beach was injured, held that

"[a]bsent such a relationship, admiralty jurisdiction would depend entirely upon the fact that a tort occurred on navigable waters -- a fact which, in and of itself, in light of the historical justification for federal admiralty jurisdiction, is quite immaterial to any meaningful invocation of the Jurisdiction of admiralty courts."

385 F.2d at 966. [Footnote 6]

Page 409 U. S. 257

As early as 1850, admiralty scholars began to suggest that a traditional maritime activity, as well as a maritime locality, is necessary to invoke admiralty jurisdiction over torts. In that year, Judge Benedict expressed his "celebrated doubt" [Footnote 7] as to whether such jurisdiction did not depend, in addition to a maritime locality, upon some

"relation of the parties to a ship or vessel, embracing only those tortious violation[s] of maritime right and duty which occur in vessels to which the Admiralty jurisdiction, in cases of contracts, applies."

E. Benedict, The American Admiralty 173 (1850). More recently, commentators have actively criticized the rule of locality as the sole criterion for admiralty jurisdiction, and have recommended adoption of a maritime relationship requirement as well. See 7A J. Moore, Federal Practice, Admiralty

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