Back in March of 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert in the case of Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Raiders Retreat Realty Co., LLC (find our coverage of that grant here). Last week, the Court released its opinion in that case, a 9-0 decision in favor of the insurer-appellant. In short, the Court put the presumption back into the presumptive enforceability of choice-of-law clauses in maritime contracts.

To briefly recap the case, Great Lakes Insurance issued a maritime insurance contract for a yacht owned by Raiders Retreat Realty Co., which has its headquarters in Pennsylvania. The parties’ insurance policy had a choice-of-law clause that selected New York law to govern any disputes arising under said contract.

Subsequently, Raiders’ yacht ran aground near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sustaining significant damage. Great Lakes denied Raiders’ insurance claim on the grounds that the yacht’s fire-extinguishing equipment was not timely recertified or inspected and that Raiders had misrepresented the state of this equipment in the past, thereby voiding the policy.

After denying the claim, Great Lakes filed a related declaratory judgment action in federal court in Pennsylvania. In response, Raiders asserted contractual counterclaims against Great Lakes under Pennsylvania law. Great Lakes then moved to dismiss the Pennsylvania-based counterclaims because they violated the policy’s New York choice-of-law clause.

The district court agreed with Great Lakes and rejected Raiders’ counterclaims. But the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the presumptive enforceability of choice-of-law clauses must yield to a strong public policy of the state where a suit is brought.

With Justice Kavanaugh delivering the opinion, the Court reversed the Third Circuit and held that choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts are presumptively enforceable under federal maritime law, with a few narrow exceptions that did not apply to this case.

The Court drew support for this rule of presumptive enforceability from its jurisprudence regarding forum-selection clauses, such as the classic case of The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co. Ironically, Raiders had relied on The Bremen for support based on a statement from the case that a “contractual choice-of-forum clause should be held unenforceable if enforcement would contravene a strong public policy of the forum in which suit is brought.” But as the Supreme Court pointed out, that sentence referred to a conflict between federal maritime law and a foreign country’s law.

Raiders further argued that the Court’s decision in Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. precluded any uniform federal presumption of enforceability for choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts. But, as the Court pointed out, Wilburn Boat was not about a choice-of-law clause; it only determined what substantive rule applied to a party’s breach of a warranty in a marine insurance policy.

The Wilburn Boat Court held that no established federal admiralty rule controlled because states historically regulated insurance and federal courts were in no position to set a nationwide standard for insurance law. Instead, the Court determined that state law governed the warranty issue.

Distinguishing Wilburn Boat, the Court explained that here, state law had no gap to fill, because there is already a uniform federal rule on the enforceability of choice-of-law provisions. And even though states primarily regulate insurance, that responsibility does not resolve which state law applies in a case.

Finally, the Court did recognize a few instances where otherwise valid choice-of-law clauses would be disregarded, such as when the chosen law contravened a federal statute on point or an established federal maritime policy. Also, there must be a reasonable basis for the chosen jurisdiction in any choice-of-law provision, though a body of law being “well developed, well known, and well regarded” is good enough.

Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion to further highlight how Wilburn Boat “rests on flawed premises and, more broadly, how the decision is at odds with the fundamental precept of admiralty law.” He explained that the Supreme Court has retreated from Wilburn Boat and that “[l]itigants and courts applying Wilburn Boat in the future should not ignore these developments.”