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An in rem suit against a vessel is distinctively an admiralty proceeding, and is hence within the exclusive province of the federal courts. A plaintiff may bring an action in rem to enforce a maritime lien. The lien and the proceeding in rem are, therefore, correlative--where one exists, the other can be taken, and not otherwise. A maritime lien may arise out of the breach of a maritime contract, but not every contract that somehow relates to a ship or its business is considered maritime. A contract cannot afford the necessary basis for a maritime lien, unless it is maritime in its nature, so as to be cognizable in admiralty.
Appellant, the Board of Commissioners of the Orleans Levee District, sought a maritime lien against the Belle of Orleans, a fully operational, steel-hulled paddlewheeler vessel, to secure payment for dockage, wharfage, utilities, and other charges pursuant to a lease between the Board and the Belle of Orleans' owners, Belle of Orleans, L.L.C. The Board further sought damages resulting from the Belle of Orleans' collision with the piers, docks, and other structures of South Shore Harbor Marina ("the Marina") during Hurricane Katrina's landfall. The district court found that the Belle of Orleans was not a vessel, that the lease between the Board and Belle of Orleans, L.L.C., was not a maritime contract, and therefore, it had admiralty jurisdiction over neither the Board's tort claim nor its contract claim. The district court denied the Board relief under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e). Appellant sought review of the decision.
Did the district court have admiralty jurisdiction over the Board’s tort claim and contract claim?
Yes, with regard to the Board’s tort claim. No, with respect to the Board’s contract claim.
The court first noted that the riverboat was a "vessel" subject to admiralty jurisdiction. The court held that the Board properly pleaded a maritime tort claim resulting from the collision with the marina under the court's precedent in Bunge Corp. v. Freeport Marine Repair, Inc., 240 F.3d 919, 925 n.7 (11th Cir. 2001), and properly requested the attachment of the riverboat pursuant to Supp. R. Adm. or Mar. Cl. & Asset Forfeiture Actions B. Therefore, the court concluded that the district court improperly dismissed the Board's in personam tort claim for lack of admiralty jurisdiction and should attach the riverboat pursuant to Rule B. However, the Board had not established a maritime contract claim giving rise to a maritime lien enforceable in rem. The Agreement was not predominantly maritime and contained substantial non-maritime elements that could not be severed without injury to the parties. The district court correctly dismissed the in rem contract claims.