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.


Know Your Rights!

  • Can I Get Breathalyzed On My Boat?

    Most of us are familiar with the concept of driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI), but how do these translate to boating? Is it illegal to boat while drunk? If one is cited for boating under the influence, will that affect their driving license? Can you be given a breathalyzer on your boat?

Articles on Related to Admiralty and Maritime Law

  • Wrongful Death at Sea: Liability, Non-Pecuniary Damages, and Survivors’ Legal Remedies
    Maritime law, already one of the most complex areas of American law, presents particular challenges in the context of a wrongful death at sea.
  • Extradition of Foreign Nationals Under the MDLEA Subverts Justice
    In 2001, I participated in the most intriguing criminal case of my career to date. More than a dozen Russians and Ukrainians, who were crew members on a boat that was seized by the United States Coast Guard off the coast of Mexico, were forcibly extradited to the United States.
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
    The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act Law was passed in 1927 to protect longshoremen who work on U.S. waters.
  • How to Get the Most Out of Your Initial Personal Injury Consultation
    In the aftermath of an accident caused by someone else, you could be facing life disrupting injuries rendering you unable to work. The medical expenses you may incur could also be significant. Once you decide to seek legal representation to deal with this situation, it's critical to the success of your case to find the lawyer who can offer the most helpful support.
  • Full Compensation for Offshore Injuries: Jones Act Negligence and Unseaworthiness
    In most cases, even when offshore employers agree to pay maintenance and cure benefits, these benefits will fall far short of meeting injured workers’ financial needs. To recover full compensation for their injury-related losses, seamen must consider pursuing additional claims for unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence.
  • What You Need to Know Before Filing a Maritime Injury Claim
    The law of the sea is very different from that of the land, and it can be confusing for someone who chooses to visit rather than work there.
  • FAQS about the Jones Act and Other Maritime Law
    There are many questions to be asked about the Jones Act and Maritime Laws. These involve seamen that may be injured in the line of duty or during usual job duties.
  • Maritime Law and Tugboat Accidents
    Tugboat work has a lot of danger to those that work with them. The labor is intensive, and there may be the problem of accidents occurring in or around them. Weather becomes a factor that may cause severe perilous conditions, and persons with spots in the vessel might become injured through colliding ships. Cables, winches and lines often cause situations that may lead to harm to individuals involved. Death is a possible outcome when handling these types of jobs.
  • The Real Risks Offshore Workers Face on a Daily Basis
    Offshore workers face numerous risks on a daily basis. When these risks lead to on-the-job injuries, the physical, financial and emotional consequences can be devastating for injured workers and their families.
  • Your Rights after a Tugboat Accident
    If you were injured on a tugboat, it is important to speak with an experienced maritime attorney about your rights. The Jones Act, maritime negligence laws and the law of unseaworthiness may all entitle you to financial compensation.
  • 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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