Most people are familiar with the concept of liens in one way or another. If a contractor performs work for a homeowner and doesn’t get paid, they might assert a mechanic’s lien against the home. If a doctor provides a patient with treatment involving an accident, they might come after the money in the form of a medical lien. Well, the maritime community is no stranger to the use of liens.
Since the days of square-rigged ships, vessel liens have been a longstanding feature of maritime law. The idea is that someone owed money by the vessel owner secures their rights with a lien against the vessel. This could arise in the form of a 19th century ship chandler who wasn’t paid for block and tackle, a modern superyacht steward who wasn’t paid wages, or someone injured while visiting the vessel. A maritime lien is basically a claim against the vessel that runs with the vessel.
In a recent case, a maritime lien arose in an accident involving an employee of marine engineering firm hired to perform maintenance on a vessel. The vessel was docked in Florida. As the employee walked up the gangway, the captain or crew suddenly and without warning put the engines in gear.
This caused the gangway to separate from the vessel. The employee fell overboard and suffered severe injuries to his head, neck, and spine. The injured employee filed a complaint to enforce a maritime lien for damages arising in maritime tort. A tort is a civil wrong, as in the case of a car accident. As mentioned above, torts fall under the broad umbrella of things that can give rise to a lien against a vessel.
In addition to the injury claim, the injured employee asked the district court to issue a warrant for the arrest of the vessel. They asserted that the injury was recognizable under admiralty jurisdiction. The arrest was requested on the grounds that the vessel was transitory in nature and at risk of leaving the jurisdiction of the district court. The district court denied the request for arrest and the matter was appealed.
On appeal, the higher court had to examine the issue of jurisdiction (a court’s authority to hear the case) and determine whether the injury suffered by the employee in boarding the yacht entitled him to a warrant for arrest of the vessel. On the first element, the court determined that the incident fell within admiralty jurisdiction. The U.S. Constitution grants federal courts power over “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2; cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1333. The court examined whether the accident occurred on navigable water, or occurred on land but was caused by a vessel on navigable water, and if the tort had sufficient connection with maritime activity (Alderman v. Pac. N. Victor, Inc., 95 F.3d 1061) The court found these elements to be satisfied.
The court then determined that the employee had the legal right to arrest the vessel, holding that a vessel is “an entity apart from its owner” that “is liable . . . for torts,” (Merchants Nat’l Bank of Mobile v. Dredge Gen. G. L. Gillespie, 663 F.2d 1338). As such, a maritime tort gives the victim a lien against the vessel “by operation of the general maritime law,” Schoenbaum, supra, at § 9-1. The court held that a lien is created as soon as the claim comes into being. The appeals court gave instructions for the clerk to issue a warrant for arrest of the vessel.
In this case, the lien and arrest arose out of an injury claim, under a tort (civil wrong) theory. Under U.S. maritime law, liens can also arise from claims for crew wages, salvage (where someone voluntarily comes to the assistance of a vessel in peril and succeeds in their efforts), collision claims, pollution claims, and preferred ship mortgages. Liens can also arise from claims for supplies and services. This can include vessel storage, towage, and pilotage.
While the facts of this case and the ensuing legal proceedings made the lien clear as daylight, there could be instances where the vessel owner might not be aware of a lien. Vessel arrest is one of the more arcane and lesser-known aspects of maritime law.
Ref: Minott v. M/Y Brunello, et al, her engines, tackle, and appurtenances, in rem, Case No. 18-10374, United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit