The Lawletter Vol 35 No 3, February 11, 2011
When parties litigate claims implicating maritime law, an often misunderstood doctrine is the so-called "saving to suitors" rule, deriving from a cryptic phrase appearing in the U.S.C. section conferring admiralty jurisdiction to the federal courts:
The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of:
(1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.
28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) (emphasis added). Under this rule, in circumstances where a plaintiff (1) possesses both state common-law claims as well as maritime claims arising from a single transaction, but (2) chooses to file an in personam suit in state court rather than an in rem suit in a federal forum, the plaintiff's forum and choice-of-law selections may not be circumvented by removal by the defendant to federal court unless federal jurisdiction is proper on grounds other than the maritime or admiralty claims arising from the events that are the subject of the suit.
The reasoning supporting application of this "reverse-Erie" doctrine is that once the plaintiff elects to initiate the suit as a common-law tort action rather than a federal admiralty one, this choice thereafter irrevocably removes the action from federal jurisdiction, despite the potential admiralty federal law claims.
[T]he problem is that, once [the plaintiff] elected to commence [his action] as a common law action and not an admiralty action, there was no basis for a federal court to assert admiralty jurisdiction over [it]. Federal courts have no original jurisdiction over a non‑diverse common law action, and after [the plaintiff] elected to treat its claims against the . . . Defendants as common law rather than admiralty claims, [the action] came into existence as a non‑diverse common law action[.]
J. Aron & Co. v. Chown, 894 F. Supp. 697, 699 (S.D.N.Y. 1995). "In other words, admiralty, in and of itself, does not create federal question jurisdiction so that a claim filed in state court can be removed to a district court." Sea‑Land Serv., Inc. v. J&W Import/Export, Inc., 976 F. Supp. 327, 329‑30 (D.N.J. 1997). Thus, this reverse-Erie doctrine "saves" to the suitor (i.e., the plaintiff) the right to have his claims heard in state court where he or she elected to file in state court rather than asserting potential federal admiralty or maritime causes of actions.