In general, maritime law falls under Federal jurisdiction. This means that when a person brings suit under a maritime law issue, the matter will be heard in federal court and federal law will be the applicable law. One notable exception to this rule is the “savings to suitors” rule whereby the case will fall under state jurisdiction.
Savings to Suitors in State Court
28 USC 1333 states, in a cryptic fashion, “Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” The term savings to suitors will be explained below.
While the term “savings to suitors,” as mentioned, is cryptic, it is commonly used to mean that when someone files a maritime or admiralty suit in state court and such suit has both federal and state components, the plaintiff may not remove the case to federal court. This is applicable when both the maritime and state claims stem from the same issue.
As mentioned, admiralty law is generally a federal issue heard in federal courts. When someone brings suit in state court regarding an issue that occurred on the high seas, such a suit is a “common law” tort suit, not an admiralty case. Nonetheless, the savings to suitors clause places limits with respect to the application of common law torts to the admiralty issues.
A savings to suitors case is called a reverse Erie case. Under the Erie Doctrine, which is a fundamental legal concept in civil procedure, a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the laws of the underlying state when hearing state-law claims.
That is to say, federal courts, in addition to admiralty law and federal law, have jurisdiction over “diversity” suits. Diversity suits are when the case in controversy is between “citizens” of two different jurisdictions are involved in a suit and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. For instance, if a citizen of Texas sues a citizen of Oklahoma for more than $75,000 in a car accident tort case, the plaintiff can sue in federal court.
However, even if the case is in federal court, the court will apply the state law, which would likely govern the car accident. This is the basic function of the Erie Doctrine.
The savings to suitors rule goes in reverse. The jurisdiction of the state court over the federal matters “saves” the party bringing suit in state court from going to federal court. Hence the term savings to suitors.
It is called reverse Erie because just like a federal court applies state law during a diversity jurisdiction case heard in that court, a state court applies federal maritime law to the case even though it is a common law tort case. While the state court can apply state law, it can only apply state law to issues when there is no conflict with federal maritime and admiralty law.
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