What is Maritime Law?

Maritime Law, Man working on ship

Maritime law is also known as admiralty law. The terms “maritime law” and “admiralty law” are used interchangeably, and they cover a variety of admiralty cases, including torts, contracts, liens, and maritime worker injuries.

Initially, admiralty laws referred to those that governed the Royal Navy and cases that involved ships and nautical commerce. The term “maritime” was used to describe the nature of the case, and to which certain laws applied. However, over time, the differences between the terms “admiralty” and “maritime” lost their significance, and the two words are now used interchangeably.

Federal courts have jurisdiction over admiralty matters. The federal admiralty statutes set forth the rules and regulations regarding maritime torts, contracts, liens, and injuries, and exactly how these cases should be presented. While admiralty cases are generally federal by nature, sometimes the cases are tried in state courts.

What Types of Cases Does a Maritime Attorney Handle?

  • Contracts, including contracts for the purchase of recreational and commercial vessels, Charter agreements, and carriage of goods, freight, and cargo;
  • Torts occurring on navigable waters;
  • Maritime liens, Yacht Broker disputes, insurance claims; and
  • Maritime Worker Injury Claims, including Maintenance and Cure claims and Jones Act claims for maritime injuries.

Eligible claimants for admiralty law claims include those injured working in the service of a ship as well as those passengers on leisure vessels, including, but not limited to:

  • Dock and shipyard workers (longshoremen and stevedores)
  • Commercial fishermen
  • Tugboat crews
  • Ferry workers
  • Barge workers and tanker men
  • Deckhands
  • Commercial Divers
  • Boat or ship passengers, including cruise ship passengers
  • Recreational boating accident victims

Many of the admiralty laws were put into place to protect workers should they become injured while performing job duties. In order for an injury to fall under maritime law and be eligible for a maritime claim, three basic conditions must be satisfied:

  • There must be a vessel involved;
  • The incident must have occurred on navigable waters; and
  • There must be a maritime nexus, i.e., the activity or injury has a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

Man limping after maritime accident and personal injury

Maritime work can be extremely dangerous, and accidents during maritime employment can be deadly. Maritime injuries are often severe, disabling, and leave an injured seaman with permanent working restrictions. Injuries can involve burns, crushed or fractured limbs, muscle and ligament sprain or strain, deep cuts, lacerations, punctures, amputations, avulsions, traumatic brain injury, spinal trauma, and dislocations.

Maritime and offshore accidents fall under a different set of laws than other personal injury or workers’ compensation claims. There are specific maritime laws that govern claims, including the Jones Act, the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Death on the High Seas Act, and general maritime laws.

The Jones Act

The Jones Act, among other things, allows injured maritime workers to make claims and obtain damages from their employers for the negligence of the ship owner, including many acts of the captain or fellow members of the crew. An action under the Jones Act may be brought either in a U.S. federal court or in a state court. The right to bring an action in state court is preserved by the “savings to suitors” clause, 28 U.S.C. § 1333. The seaman-plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial, a right which is not afforded in maritime law absent a statute authorizing it.

Under general maritime law, an employer also has an obligation to provide its injured employee with “maintenance and cure” which is a type of compensation to help during the injured employee’s recovery.

Some maritime accidents are more complicated than a clear and obvious case of employer negligence. In some cases, an independent contractor or the employee of such a contractor may be partially or totally to blame for the accident that caused the injuries.

This may occur due to faulty equipment or a mechanical defect attributable to negligent design or manufacturing. When such is the case, it may be possible to pursue a claim against the contractor in addition to pursuing maintenance and cure benefits under the Jones Act.

A third party liability claim is pursued independent of the Jones Act and falls within standard personal injury liability laws, so there will be some differences in how that claim is handled and how a Jones Act claim for benefits is handled.

Michael Wales is a Maritime Law Attorney in San Diego, California. Mike also owns AGL Yacht Sales, Inc., a San Diego Yacht Brokerage, with his wife Leilani Wales. For assistance with any maritime legal matter you may contact Mike at mwales@waleslaw.com or at 619.493.1700. For information on brokerage boats please visit www.aglyachts.com.