Appellate-Practice Group Persuades Appellate Court to Resolve “Gangplank Rule”

Michael B. King, Jason W. Anderson, and Rory D. Cosgrove, of Carney Badley Spellman’s appellate-practice group, persuaded the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to resolve a circuit split on the so-called “gangplank rule” in favor of their client, the Port of Bellingham. Adamson v. Port of Bellingham, 907 F.3d 1122 (9th Cir. 2018).

Shannon Adamson was a crewmate on a ferry operated by the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Port of Bellingham built a marine terminal, which included a permanent passenger ramp and a vehicle ramp, specifically for the ferry system’s use. Adamson misoperated the passenger ramp and was injured.

The District Court concluded on partial summary judgment that maritime law did not apply to Adamson’s tort claims because her injuries did not occur on navigable waters. Adamson challenged this ruling on appeal.

Structures like bridges, piers, and docks have been consistently deemed extensions of land for purposes of maritime law. But a gangplank or gangway has been traditionally viewed as part of a vessel; thus injuries on gangplanks were deemed to have occurred on navigable waters.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the passenger ramp was an extension of the land and thus maritime law did not apply. It joined the Fourth and Fifth Circuits and held that whether equipment that is used to access a vessel is a gangplank (or gangway) for maritime-law purposes—or is a permanent land-based structure subject to state law—will be determined on a case-by-case basis. It rejected the First Circuit’s per se rule that any equipment used to access a vessel is a gangplank subject to admiralty jurisdiction. The court declined Adamson’s request for rehearing en banc.

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