Maritime Law

Guide to Admiralty Law




What is Maritime and Admiralty Law?

Maritime law, also referred to as admiralty law, consists of the statutes and case precedents that govern legal disputes originating on navigable waters. Navigable waters include all bodies of water that are capable of being used for interstate or foreign commerce. Thus, a large river that flows into the ocean or crosses state lines would fall within maritime jurisdiction. A lake entirely within a single state would not.

This area of the law deals with a variety of factual scenarios. Examples include commercial accidents resulting in damage to vessels and cargo, seamen injuries, and hazardous material spills. Maritime law can also apply to piracy and criminal activity, liens against a ship, wake damage, and towage contracts. Furthermore, in an increasing number of cases, jurisdiction has been upheld in recreational boating accidents that occur on navigable waters.

Cases in which maritime law applies are heard in federal court, pursuant to Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Alternatively, under 28 USC §1333, a plaintiff may elect to file suit in state court, but federal law will still apply. Maritime laws are enacted by Congress in accordance with its constitutional authority to regulate commerce with foreign countries and between the states.

The shipping of cargo is the primary activity conducted in the open ocean. Following an accident, litigation can arise over who is responsible for the lost or damaged cargo. In cases of foreign trade in which American law applies, the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) applies. This law, made part of every bill of lading, limits a ship owner’s liability to $500 per container, as long as the ship was in proper condition prior to departure.

Admiralty law also deals with disputes concerning salvage awards. These cases involve vessels or other property that have been saved from peril, or recovered from the bottom of the ocean. By law, the rescuer is entitled to a reward for taking the risks necessary to conduct the salvage. The size of the reward may be determined by contract. Otherwise, courts will decide based on factors such as the value of the property and the degree of risk involved.

Compensation for Injured Passengers and Seamen

Personal injury cases governed by maritime law raise unique issues requiring an attorney who specializes in such matters. For example, the legal rights of passengers hurt by the negligence of a cruise line will be curtailed by the terms of their ticket. In most cases this means the time limit for filing suit will be one year instead of three, and notice may be required in as little as six months.

For sailors hurt on the job, recovering compensation under maritime law can be even more complex. Federal legislation known as the Jones Act, found at 46 USC §883, sets forth the rights of injury victims who qualify as “seamen.” A seaman is a male or female crew member whose service meets certain requirements under the act. This determination alone will often require consultation with legal counsel.

If the Jones Act applies, the injured crew member will be entitled to a jury trial and other protections similar to those afforded to injured railroad workers. The purpose of the legislation is to provide a fair process for sailors to file a negligence claim and receive compensation from their employer. Should the negligent act of an employer or coworker result in death, surviving family members are permitted to file suit.

Employees who do not qualify as seamen under the Jones Act have other means available for collecting injury compensation. The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness imposes a duty on ship owners to maintain and equip their vessels properly. If they do not, they will be liable for any resulting injuries to crew members. Similarly, the law of “maintenance and cure” requires employers to pay the expenses of injured crew members following an accident.

Federal maritime law combines modern legislation, centuries-old doctrines, international treaties, private contracts, and more into a single set of interdependent legal rules. Even in coastal cities, most personal injury lawyers are not proficient in admiralty law, and will not accept these cases. Those with legal rights or interests that may be affected by this area of the law are strongly encouraged to retain a specialist.

Copyright HG.org

Know Your Rights!

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    Perhaps one of the most prolific – and horrendous – cruise ship accidents in recent memory was the January 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia. When the ship ran aground off the cost of Italy, 4,200 passengers and crew members were forced to evacuate. Unfortunately, dozens of passengers were injured and a yet-still-unknown number killed.
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  • All Admiralty and Maritime Law Articles

    Articles written by attorneys and experts worldwide discussing legal aspects related to Admiralty and Maritime including: boating, cruise and commercial ship accidents, Jones Act and ship registration.

Admiralty and Maritime Law - US

  • ABA - Admiralty and Maritime Law Committee

    News, blogs, and meeting information for maritime law professionals. Many of the resources on this page can be accessed by non-members, including the video “Admiralty Practice in the 21st Century.”

  • Admiralty and Maritime Law Guide

    This comprehensive legal guide provides statutes, court opinions, and commentary on admiralty law in the U.S.

  • Admiralty Law - Overview

    The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University publishes this summary including historical and modern sources of admiralty law.

  • Admiralty Law - Wikipedia

    Authoritative discussion of the major components of admiralty law, including liability issues, piracy, and international conventions.

  • DOT - Maritime Administration

    The Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration plays an important role in port safety, workforce issues, and cargo inspection.

  • Federal Maritime Commission (FMC)

    The FMC regulates international shipping lanes for the benefit of American businesses and consumers. The agency’s electronic reading room provides access to all reports that come before the commission.

  • Maritime Law Cases

    Court opinions dating back to 1985. Cases are published in their entirety, followed by a short summary. Published by Gordon, Elias & Seely, LLP, a maritime law firm in the Texas Gulf Coast.

  • Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) - Department of Homeland Security

    MTSA is federal legislation passed in 2002 to enhance port and shipping security in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. General information about the act and its implementation.

  • Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998

    A 90-page report setting forth the impact of the reform act on the ocean shipping industry published in 2001 by the Federal Maritime Commission.

  • United States Coast Guard

    Information about the Coast Guard, and its mission to safeguard the nation’s interests and the environment. Established in 1790, this branch of the armed forces is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

  • US Code - Navigation and Navigable Waters

    Title 33 of the United States Code contains federal maritime laws dealing with ocean exploration, oil spills, inland waterways navigation, vessel collisions, bridges over navigable waters, and more.

  • US Code - Shipping Laws and Regulations

    Title 46 of the code contains the federal laws that regulate shipping. These laws cover issues such as cargo inspection, licensing for merchant seamen, tonnage taxes, and drug enforcement.

  • US Navy

    More than 300,000 active-duty personnel are engaged in the Navy’s objective of deterring aggression and protecting freedom. Learn about the world’s most dominant naval force.

International Admiralty and Maritime Guide

Organizations Related to Admiralty and Maritime Law - U.S.

  • Maritime Law Association (MLA)

    The MLA was founded at the close of the 19th century to promote reforms in American maritime laws and regulations. The group’s reports and proceedings are made available for download.

  • Society of Maritime Arbitrators (SMA)

    Based out of New York, the SMA is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating legal professionals and the public about the benefits of arbitration as an alternative to traditional litigation.

Publications Related to Admiralty and Maritime Law


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