Sisson v. Ruby

PETITIONER: Everett A. Sisson
RESPONDENT: Burton B. Ruby, et al.
LOCATION: Washington Park Marina, Michigan City, Indiana

DOCKET NO.: 88-2041
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 497 US 358 (1990)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1990

ADVOCATES:
Robert J. Kopka - on behalf of the Respondent
Warren J. Marwedel - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

On September 24, 1985, a yacht owned by Everett Sisson caught fire while it was moored at a Lake Michigan marina. The fire destroyed the yacht and damaged several others in the vicinity. The owners of the other yachts sued Sisson for $275,000 for the damage to their yachts and the marina. Sisson filed a petition for declaratory and injunctive relief to limit his liability to $800, the value of his yacht after the fire. He argued that the district court had maritime jurisdiction, but the court disagreed and dismissed the petition. Sisson moved for reconsideration, and the district court denied the motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Question

Does a federal district court have jurisdiction over a suit to limit the liability of a yacht owner regarding the fire on his vessel?

Media for Sisson v. Ruby

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1990 in Sisson v. Ruby

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 88-2041, Everett Sisson v. Burton Ruby.

Mr. Marwedel.

Warren J. Marwedel:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In September of 1985 the Petitioner was doing what all sailors have to do, performing maintenance on his boat.

His boat was docked, what we regard a traditional maritime activity, in a navigable waterway Michigan... in Michigan City, Indiana, at a pleasure boating dock.

William H. Rehnquist:

Was this a kind of a marina, or was it just a single dock?

Warren J. Marwedel:

It's a marina that is in part of the harbor of Michigan City.

They have allocated part of the harbor... it used to be a commercial harbor, part of it now has municipal docks operated as a marina for pleasure craft, six-pack fishing boats, that sort of thing.

Commercial fishing boats?

Warren J. Marwedel:

Well, they are commercial in the sense of I may own a boat, and if I have a fishing license I can take out six people to fish on Lake Michigan, and I charge them a fee for taking them out.

Not in the sense of a commercial boat that brings it in for restaurants and that sort of thing.

That night a fire broke out on the boat, which has been classified as one of the main perils of a boat, and it totally destroyed Mr. Sisson's yacht and did considerable damage to other yachts, as well as to marina property.

A limitation of liability petition was filed in the U.S. District Court in Chicago--

William H. Rehnquist:

Now, when you use the term yacht, Mr. Marwedel, do you mean something fairly specific?

Warren J. Marwedel:

--It is a 56-foot Hatteras inboard, twin screw motor yacht, which can be used for cruising throughout the Great Lakes.

William H. Rehnquist:

And when you say other, it damaged other yachts, you mean boats of similar size, or much smaller size?

Warren J. Marwedel:

Yes.

In fact the petitioner's... or the respondents' yacht was of similar size.

There were some smaller yachts, sailboats, everything from another 56-foot yacht to a small sailboat.

William H. Rehnquist:

What is the difference between a yacht and a sailboat?

Warren J. Marwedel:

Well, they are all yachts.

I am only describing the size.

William H. Rehnquist:

So, how do we, very briefly, define a yacht?

Warren J. Marwedel:

Well, I think a yacht... well, I am a sailor, and generally we refer to a yacht as something over 26 feet.

William H. Rehnquist:

Over 26 feet.

Warren J. Marwedel:

There is no rule, but it's just a term we use.

The district court dismissed the petition for limitation of liability on the grounds there was no subject matter admiralty jurisdiction.

The admiralty jurisdiction of the United States courts is derived from Article 3 of the Constitution and the judicial power.

It confers on the courts the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.

Today those two terms are used synonymously, but in past times, in colonial times and in European times, the admiralty law generally dealt with just the sea, the navigable waters.