The opinion of the court was delivered by: HUYETT
The ebb and flow of admiralty jurisdiction has not been characterized by the same predictability as the waters it governs.
Thus, the Supreme Court in Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law, 404 U.S. 202, 205, 30 L. Ed. 2d 383, 92 S. Ct. 418 (1971) stated: "The historic view of this Court has been that the maritime tort jurisdiction of the federal courts is determined by the locality of the accident and that maritime law governs only those torts occurring on the navigable waters of the United States." A little more than a year later, however, the Court held that maritime tort jurisdiction did not exist, absent a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity, when an aircraft goes down on navigable waters or when negligence occurs while the aircraft is flying over such waters. Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249, 34 L. Ed. 2d 454, 93 S. Ct. 493 (1972). These cases confirm Mr. Justice Holmes' statement in The Blackheath, 195 U.S. 361, 365, 49 L. Ed. 236, 25 S. Ct. 46 (1904): "The precise scope of admiralty jurisdiction is not a matter of obvious principle or of very accurate history."
Nor can we in seeking to ascertain the proper boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction take comfort from Professors Gilmore and Black's observation "that the important cases in admiralty are not the borderline cases on jurisdiction; these may exercise a perverse fascination in the occasion they afford for elaborate casuistry, but the main business of the [admiralty] court involves claims for cargo damage, collision, seaman's injuries and the like -- all well and comfortably within the circle, and far from the penumbra." G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty 24 n. 88 (1957). In this case we are concerned with a method of process having an admiralty lienage never clearly defined and an admiralty rationale never clearly articulated.
The question presented is whether admiralty jurisdiction comprehends a suit to try title to or the right to possession of cargo when the claim to the cargo is not based on the breach of a maritime contract or the commission of a maritime tort. We hold that admiralty does not encompass such a suit.
In this action the plaintiffs, Nelson Baker Hunt and BP Exploration Company (Libya) Limited, seek to adjudicate their right of title to and possession of a cargo of petroleum products laden on the steam tanker Hilda which ship was attached by this court when it entered the Port of Philadelphia.
It is claimed that the petroleum products have their source in an oil field, the Sarir Field, discovered by the plaintiffs in November 1961 and unlawfully seized in two stages by the Libyan government in December 1971 and June 1973. The plaintiffs' claim of title to and possession of the cargo is alleged to result from a deed dated December 18, 1957, granted by the Government of Libya, through its Petroleum Commission, to plaintiff Hunt. A one-half undivided interest in the deed was assigned by Hunt to BP on June 24, 1960, with the approval of the Government of Libya. The only jurisdiction alleged in the complaint is that in admiralty pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(h).
A claim to the cargo has been filed by Coastal States Marketing, Inc. as purchaser from a refinery at Priola, Italy. Coastal States has moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b) (1).
In admiralty suits to try title to property independent of questions concerning possession are referred to as petitory suits. A petitory suit must be based on a claim of legal title; the assertion of a mere equitable interest is not sufficient. See, The Captain Johnson, 64 F. Supp. 559 (D.N.J. 1946). A possessory action is one in which a party seeks to adjudicate the right to possess property wrongfully taken. See Silver v. Sloop Silver Cloud, 259 F. Supp. 187 (S.D.N.Y. 1966); 1 E. Benedict Admiralty § 73 (6th Ed. 1940). The nature of these actions and their recognition as part of admiralty jurisdiction of this country has been well established since Justice Story's decision sitting as a Circuit Justice in The Tilton, 23 F. Cas. 1277 (No. 14,054 C.C. Mass. 1830). Petitory actions and actions for possession are in rem actions analogous to the common law remedies of replevin and detinue.
We must determine the circumstances in which admiralty provides for such suits.
A suit to try title to or possession of a ship wrongfully taken has long been considered within the jurisdiction of admiralty courts regardless of whether the claim to the ship is based on the breach of a maritime tort. Ward v. Peck, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 267 (1855); The Tilton, supra ; Gallagher v. Unenrolled Motor Vessel River Queen, 475 F.2d 117, 119 (5 Cir. 1973); Atamanchuck v. Atamanchuck, 61 F. Supp. 459 (D.N.J. 1945); Gilmore and Black, The Law of Admiralty 24 (1957). The courts in sustaining admiralty jurisdiction in this instance recognize the maritime nature of questions involving the title and possession of ships. The courts' reasoning is analogous to that employed to sustain jurisdiction over questions involving injuries to seaman while in the performance of the ship's duties even though the injuries occur on land. See O'Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 318 U.S. 36, 87 L. Ed. 596, 63 S. Ct. 488 (1943). The questions raised in such actions bear a significant relationship to maritime service, commerce or navigation. As stated by Justice Story:
Indeed, the titles to ships principally depend upon the maritime law, as recognized and enforced in the common law; and the admiralty does little more in most instance causes, than to carry into effect the declarations of the maritime law, so recognized and enforced. No doubt exists, that the admiralty possesses authority to decree restitution of ships wrongfully withheld from the owners.
The Tilton, 23 Fed. Cas. supra at p. 1279. See also, Grigg v. The Clarissa Ann, 11 Fed. Cas. 47 (No. 5, 826 E.D. Va. 1877).
The question whether admiralty provides for jurisdiction to try title to or possession of property other than ships, such as the cargo in this case, absent the existence of a maritime tort or contract, is not as clear. Courts have adjudicated questions of title to and possession of cargo either when there existed a maritime tort or contract or when the question relating to the cargo was incident to matters clearly within the admiralty jurisdiction. See generally, 1 E. Benedict, Admiralty § 73 at 154 n. 11 (6th Ed. 1940). Thus, in Post v. Jones, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 150, 15 L. Ed. 618 (1856), the Court considered the claims of the owners of cargo sold to the claimants after the ship had become disabled in far off areas of the waters. The sale of the cargo by the master of the ship to the claimants was adjudged not to have passed valid title, and the claimants were therefore awarded only salvage. See also, American Insurance Co. v. Johnson, 1 Fed. Cas. 665, 670 (No. 303 S.D.N.Y. 1827). And in the Tietjen & Lang No. 2, 53 F. Supp. 459 (D.N.J. 1949), the title to equipment was adjudicated along with the issue of title to a derrick lighter which had been sold pursuant to fraudulent representations.
Courts in other situations, however, have clearly limited jurisdiction to questions involving maritime torts or contracts. In Five Hundred and Twenty Eight Pieces of Mahogany, 9 Fed. Cas. 200, 201 (No. 4,845 D. Mass. 1874), the court stated:
[Where] the possession of movable property has been changed, against the right of the true owner, either by a maritime tort or by the breach of a maritime contract, to which the property was subject, the owner may vindicate his title in a court of ...