Steadying the Ship: Supreme Court Reinforces Choice-of-Law Provisions in Maritime Contracts | ZFZ Postcard Cases

Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Raiders Retreat Realty Co., LLC:

On February 21, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a decisive opinion in Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Raiders Retreat Realty Co., LLC, 601 U.S. 65 (2024), upholding the enforceability of choice-of-law provisions, marking a significant development in maritime law.

The case involved a dispute over an insurance claim for a damaged vessel, which evolved into a complex legal analysis of contractual agreements and pinning state versus federal law. The following sections detail the factual background, judicial proceedings, and broader implications of this case, shedding light on its impact on maritime commerce and legal practices.


In 2019, a vessel owned by Raiders ran aground, sustaining damages estimated at over $300,000. Subsequent investigations by Great Lakes revealed that the vessel’s fire extinguishing equipment had not been inspected or recertified, contrary to the requirements of an insurance policy covering the loss. As a result of these findings, Great Lakes denied Raiders’ insurance claim.

The subject insurance contract contained a choice-of-law clause specifying that disputes would be governed by federal admiralty law, or in its absence, by New York law:

It is hereby agreed that any dispute arising hereunder shall be adjudicated according to well established, entrenched principles and precedents of substantive United States Federal Admiralty law and practice but where no such well-established, entrenched precedent exists, this insuring agreement is subject to the substantive laws of the State of New York.

Pennsylvania District Court

Great Lakes filed a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asserting that the insurance policy was invalid due to breaches of its terms by Raiders. Great Lakes contended that the failure to maintain the vessel’s fire extinguishing equipment as required by the policy justified the denial of the insurance coverage.

In response, Raiders filed five counterclaims based on Pennsylvania law, three of which explicitly invoked state law grounds. Great Lakes argued that the choice-of-law provision in the insurance contract mandated the application of New York law, thus rendering the Pennsylvania claims inapplicable. Raiders responded that the Supreme Court decision of The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972) made the choice of law provision unenforceable. In The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972), the Supreme Court held 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, whether declared by statute or by judicial decision.”

Despite Raiders’ public policy arguments, the District Court ruled in favor of Great Lakes. The court granted Great Lakes’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the strong public policy of Pennsylvania could not override the “presumptive validity” of maritime choice-of-law principles. This decision affirmed the applicability of New York law as per the contractual agreement between the parties.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Raiders appealed the District Court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appellate court reaffirmed the general principle that choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts are indeed presumptively enforceable.

However, the Court of Appeals diverged significantly in its approach to state public policy. The court recognized that while federal law generally supports the enforcement of contractual agreements, including choice-of-law provisions, these provisions must not contravene the strong public policies of the states where the disputes are adjudicated. Specifically, the court focused on Pennsylvania’s public policy against the bad faith denial of insurance coverage. The appellate court remanded the case back to the District Court to assess whether applying New York law, as stipulated in the contract’s choice-of-law clause, would indeed violate the public policy of Pennsylvania. If found to be true, Pennsylvania law might need to be applied instead.

Supreme Court Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split in the Courts of Appeals regarding the enforceability of choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts. Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court and reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The Court firmly upheld the presumption that choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts are enforceable, emphasizing that this presumption is subject to only narrow exceptions, none of which were applicable in the current case. However, the Supreme Court decisively declined to establish a new exception for cases involving a conflict between the law of the forum state and the law designated by the contractual choice-of-law provision. The Court reasoned that introducing such an exception lacked historical support and would substantially disrupt the predictability and uniformity that maritime law aims to provide.

The Court notably rejected the argument that Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955), required the application of state law, specifically stating that Wilburn Boat “does not control the analysis of choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts.” The distinction regarding Wilburn Boat is particularly important as that 1955 case established the use of state law as a “gap-filler” where there is an absence of uniform maritime law on point.

The Court drew parallels between choice-of-law provisions and forum-selection clauses, which have been consistently upheld in past Supreme Court decisions, such as The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972) and Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585 (1991). The Court highlighted that both types of clauses serve to enhance the efficiency and certainty of maritime commerce by minimizing uncertainties regarding the applicable legal framework or judicial venue for resolving contract disputes.

This emphasis on certainty and predictability, as noted in the Court’s reasoning, aligns with the broader objectives of maritime law to facilitate smooth commercial operations across different jurisdictions. The Supreme Court’s decision in Great Lakes not only reinforces the enforceability of contractual agreements in maritime settings but also clarifies the limited scope within which state public policies can influence such federal contractual norms.


The Supreme Court’s ruling in Great Lakes marks a significant victory for the maritime insurance industry, with potential far-reaching consequences for the handling of maritime claims across the United States. This decision solidifies the enforceability of choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts, providing a robust defense tool for insurance providers.

Parties in maritime cases are now better positioned to insist on the enforcement of a policy’s choice-of-law provision. This strategic advantage is particularly valuable when policyholders seek application of the law of a jurisdiction deemed more favorable to their clients.

Of course, this decision not only impacts maritime insurance contracts but also extends to maritime contracts generally. This broad application underscores the Court’s intention to foster predictability and stability in maritime commerce. By reinforcing the validity of choice-of-law clauses, the Court ensured that parties to a maritime contract have a better understanding of the legal framework that governs their agreements, thereby minimizing uncertainties and disputes.

By Timothy S. McGovern and Rowland Edwards