What are Arrest and Attachment Proceedings?

How the laws work in Maryland admiralty and maritime cases

Imagine that you have a legal claim against the owner of a ship. You could seek a property interest in the vessel in order to secure the financial compensation you are owed. At the same time, this raises an important question: What is to stop the ship from simply floating out of the harbor and leaving the jurisdiction entirely?

Maritime attachments and maritime arrests are among the key legal tools that provide plaintiffs with a potential remedy to this issue. With them, “You can secure that debt by asserting a claim against the vessel and arresting the vessel in federal court, in order to keep the vessel here in the district,” says Meighan Burton, an attorney at Pascale Stevens in Baltimore. “Otherwise, once it leaves here, you're sort of out of luck. You have to follow it to the next jurisdiction, or wait till it comes back.”

Here are the most important things you should know about arrest and attachment proceedings.

Understanding the Basics

Under United States admiralty law, vessels can be ‘liable’ for both maritime torts and breach of contract. A claimant may be able to obtain a property lien on a vessel in order to satisfy a financial obligation that is owed.

“There are different types,” Burton says. “You have commercial vessels, where you've got a big tanker coming into port, and the vessel is being arrested because they haven't paid for fuel for example, or some other service. Another common example would involve a mortgage on a commercial or recreational boat, and the owner has defaulted. You can arrest a vessel based upon a maritime lien for many types of services to the vessel, whether it be fuel, supplies, repairs, or a mortgage.”

Arrest and attachment proceedings are essentially tools to help plaintiffs/claimants get a response from the defendant. Parties can use an arrest or attachment to obtain a prejudgment security interest in a vessel while an impending claim is still ongoing. Although the terms are often used simultaneously, they refer to two distinct legal remedies:

  • Maritime Attachment: As explained by the U.S. Marshals Service, a writ of attachment is a “prejudgment process in which the court orders the seizure of attachment” of a vessel. Maritime attachment is available to any plaintiff with a maritime claim. With an attachment, the property (vessel) does not necessarily have to be tied to the underlying claim.
  • Maritime Arrest: With a maritime arrest, a plaintiff must have maritime lien on the property they are attempting to get seized. An arrest can be a more powerful tool than an attachment, but it is also more limited. 

“It’s common for a larger commercial case to have an underlying bankruptcy involved, Burton adds. “You have to arrest the vessel in federal court, because you're pursuing the repayment of a maritime lien. The process is largely the same from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, because it’s federal law. You can also attach a vessel under state law, just as you would any other personal property, but the process is very different. Federal rules are more consistent, and you have the benefit in federal court of having the U.S. Marshal go out and physically arrest the ship.”

Because jurisdiction is a challenge in admiralty and maritime cases, timing is of utmost importance. “If you have a vessel that you know isn't going to be here very long, and is leaving the jurisdiction, the federal marshal's office here in Maryland is pretty good about it,” Burton says, adding they can usually let you know if your timeframe is achievable. “You can sometimes call them on a Saturday and say, ‘I need a vessel arrested first thing Monday morning.’”

Admiralty and Maritime Cases are Complicated

Admiralty and maritime claims are among the most complex types of legal cases. There are many unique rules, regulations, and procedures that govern attachment and arrest proceedings. If you are attempting to recover financial compensation for a maritime tort or a breach of contract, they can be highly effective legal tools—but you have to know how to use them.

“There’s a specific procedure that must be followed, and you’ve got to pay the marshals’ fees before they'll do anything, of course,” Burton says. “So the first thing to do, as a practical matter, is to notify the marshal's office. Then file all the paperwork, which includes a verified complaint to establish a maritime lien, a motion to arrest the vessel, proposed orders and warrants for the arrest in rem. Once the court enters the orders or issues the warrants, the U.S. Marshal will arrest the vessel.”

If you have any specific questions about your rights or your options in an arrest and attachment proceeding, contact an experienced Maryland transportation & maritime lawyer for immediate assistance. 

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