Eleventh Circuit Defines Navigable Waters

In Aqua Log v. Lost and Abandoned Logs, 11-15060, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's grant of summary judgment to the State of Georgia, finding that the District Court erred in concluding that the waterways in question were not navigable.  The Eleventh Circuit concluded that a waterway is navigable for admiralty jurisdiction purposes if, in its present state, it is capable of supporting commercial activity.

This appeal concerned segments of two (2) Georgia waterways, a two mile stretch of the Flint River and a one mile stretch of Spring Creek.  Historically, commercial vessels had used both the Flint River and Spring Creek for transportation.  During the late 19th century and early 20th century, loggers transported their commercially harvested logs by floating them down these rivers, with some of the logs sinking to the bottom of the river during transport.  The plaintiff, Aqua Log, is a company that finds, removes, and sells these submerged logs.  Aqua Log estimates that there are hundreds of submerged logs at the bottom of both waterways and sought to remove the submerged logs and sell them.  In August 2007, Aqua Log, invoking the court's admiralty jurisdiction, brought an in rem action seeking a salvage award for the logs or, in the alternative, an award of title to the logs.  The State of Georgia intervened and claimed ownership of the logs.  The State of Georgia moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the Flint River and Spring Creek were not navigable waters and therefore the Court did not have admiralty jurisdiction.  The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the State of Georgia.

In granting summary judgment, the District Court defined navigable waters as those waters with evidence of present or potential commercial activity.  The District Court reasoned that the purpose of admiralty jurisdiction is to promote and protect commercial activity and that, in the absence of such commercial activity, the federal interest in protecting and promoting such activity no longer exists.  The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding that a test that requires evidence of actual or likely commercial activity as outlined by the District Court fails to provide the predictability that encourages maritime commerce.  The Eleventh Circuit determined that the broad federal interest in protecting and promoting maritime commerce justifies the potential encroachment on expanding admiralty jurisdiction into waterways that may never be used for commercial activities.  As such, the Court held that a test for navigability that looks to whether a waterway is capable of supporting commercial activity promotes and encourages maritime commerce, and finding admiralty jurisdiction in such situations creates a climate conducive to commercial maritime activity.  

Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the Flint River and Spring Creek were navigable waters for the purposes of admiralty jurisdiction even though they were not currently being used to support commercial activity because each waterway was capable of supporting commercial activity.

Read a copy of the Eleventh Circuit's decision

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