The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit that sought to apply federal admiralty law to a negligence lawsuit against the county of Miami-Dade following a boating accident that occurred in an inland canal. The panel ruled a waterway that has artificial obstructions that prevent commerce doesn’t fall under federal law.
This could have an impact on future injury lawsuits filed by individuals harmed in South Florida boating accidents.
In this case, Tundidor v. Miami-Dade County, plaintiff was injured in 2013 and later filed a federal lawsuit after his face struck a pipe while he was riding a pleasure motorboat while it passed under a low bridge about 7 miles inland in Coral Park Canal. Justices ruled in favor of the county, finding plaintiff did not prove the baseline requirement to invoke federal admiralty law, which is the foundation of any case brought against an entity for wrongs taking place on navigable waters. The U.S. Supreme Court laid out the foundation for this in an 1870 case holding that waters may fall under federal law when, in their ordinary condition, they are navigable for interstate commerce.
Plaintiff had suffered serious injuries in the Miami boating accident, in which he was a passenger on a pleasure boat. When the boat approached the Coral Park Canal Bridge, plaintiff and three other passengers lowered their heads while the boat was passing underneath the bridge. As the boat was coming out of the south side of the bridge, plaintiff raised his head. It was then that he struck a water pipe. The force of that caused plaintiff to be tossed off the boat and into the water.
In addition to a number of low-lying bridges like this, the canal is obstructed by water pipes and even rail-road tracks. None of the narrow bridges that cross over the waterway allow for vessels to pass underneath unless they are very small.
Plaintiff had argued the waterway usually is navigable through the Tamiami Canal, which flows down to the Miami River and then later out to the Atlantic Ocean. However, there had been a flood-control spillway between the canal and the river. He argued the canal had the potential for commercial use and trade both historically and in the present condition, proposing that fishing or logging businesses could potentially use the water to transport products before reaching the river, at which point they could use a crane to move the items over to another larger vessel, which could then be used to take goods to broader markets, such as Georgia or the Bahamas.
However, the panel expressed skepticism of this assertion, and ultimately rejected it. In this case, there were artificial obstructions that would block interstate travel for commerce purposes on this waterway, which means it doesn’t meet the legal requirement for federal jurisdiction. This was also despite the plaintiff providing evidence that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority had previously classified the canal as a “transportation corridor” and a navigable water. But this alone doesn’t mean there was enough evidence to support invocation of admiralty law.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Tundidor v. Miami-Dade County, Aug. 3, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
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