Only Congress has the power to enact time limitation statutes for suits in admiralty. However, there are few such statutes. Congress has left many maritime rights without time bar periods.

The most notable of the maritime time bar periods include:

  • Three years for maritime personal injuries and deaths
  • Two-year limits for salvage suits and maritime claims against the government
  • A one-year period for cargo actions under the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, also known as Cogsa.

To fill the statute of limitation void in admiralty, courts use the equitable principle known as laches to terminate stale claims. The term is derived from the Latin word, laxus, meaning lax. It is defined as the failure to do the required thing at the proper time (i.e., inexcusable delays in presenting claims).

The laches doctrine first appeared in the U.S. maritime law in 1815 and soon became well established. In 1871 the Supreme Court discussed this doctrine in the case of the Key City, where a shipper sued for missing cargo three years after it was lost. In ruling that admiralty actions are not determined by state statutes of limitations, the court mandated:

“No arbitrary or fixed period of time has been, or will be, established as an inflexible rule, but… the delay which will defeat such a suit must in every case depend on the particular circumstances of that case.”

Unlike the absolute bar provisions in statutes of limitation, the application of laches to maritime non-statutory claims requires considering the prejudice to defendants resulting from delays and the circumstances that may excuse plaintiffs, for not bringing suits more promptly. Factors to be considered are the duration of the delay, whether evidence has been lost as a result of the delay, the sufficiency of the excuse, and whether the defendant has been subjected to any disadvantage or hardship that might have been avoided by prompt proceedings.

Prior to 1951, despite the Supreme Court’s mandate in the Key City case, plaintiffs seldom won non-statutory maritime suits that were filed after a statute of limitations had transpired. In 1951 the Supreme Court, in the Gardner case, again addressed the issue of laches and made reference to the prevailing practice of mechanically applying state statutes of limitations to maritime claims:

“Though the existence of laches is a question primarily addressed to the discretion of the trial court, the matter shall not be determined merely by a reference to and a mechanical application of the statute of limitations. The equities of the parties must be considered as well. Where there has been no inexcusable delay in seeking a remedy and where no prejudice to the defendant has ensued from the mere passage of time, there should be no bar to relief.”

Since the Gardner case, federal courts have been taking into consideration the equities of the parties, rather than mechanically applying state statutes of limitations to non-statutory maritime claims.

Recent Cogsa cases indicate that federal courts are willing to apply the laches principles on occasion even in maritime cases with mandatory limitation periods.

In the Rohm case (1989 AMC 420), plaintiffs unsuccessfully sued for a cargo loss caused while cargo was being discharged from a vessel during a transshipment operation. The plaintiff’s claim came under Cogsa, which contains a one-year statute of limitations: “The carrier and the ship shall be discharged from all liability in respect to loss or damage unless suit is brought within one year after delivery of the goods or the date the goods should have been delivered.”

Plaintiffs brought suit almost 18 months after their shipment was delivered. The plaintiffs argued that the Cogsa time bar provision should not apply because the transshipment constituted an unreasonable deviation that precludes the carrier from asserting the Cogsa time bar defense.

In analyzing the case, a U.S. district court in New Jersey stated that the one-year statute of limitation was not set in stone. “The equitable doctrine that permits a court to toll (suspend) a statute of limitations is read into every federal statute.” The court nevertheless ruled against the plaintiffs, noting that plaintiffs advanced no argument in support of an equitable tolling, such as learning of the deviation more than a year after the delivery date.

It now appears admiralty courts may be treating the equitable doctrine of laches as substantive law. This may occur even in cases with federally prescribed limitation periods.