Maritime law is the collection of laws and agreements that govern behavior and activities on the seas. The area of law governs how people interact and do business on the waters of the world. Also called admiralty law, maritime law primarily governs activities on international waters. However, there are also laws that apply to the waters in and near each country. Generally, each country applies their own laws to inland waters like lakes and rivers.
When most Americans board a cruise ship, they’re blissfully unaware of the maritime law that applies to their case. However, maritime law affects everyone who travels on the high seas. Maritime laws regulate a wide variety of activities and possible events including commerce, navigation, lost cargo, leisure travel and the interaction between employers and seamen.
Where does maritime law come from?
Maritime law is a collection of international agreements and domestic laws. Many domestic laws codify and give domestic enforcement power to international agreements. In the United States, Maritime law is mostly federal law.
Sometimes, things like personal injury cases that occur on the seas might go to a state court. However, laws that specifically address maritime issues and activities are federal laws. Even when a case goes to a state court, federal law typically applies. A lot of modern, codified maritime law comes from British principles of common law.
General principles of maritime law
There are several rules and principles that apply to activities on the high seas:
- Maintenance and cure – When a seaman is in service to an employer, they have a right to appropriate injury care. When a seaman gets hurt on the seas, their employer must treat them. The term for this responsibility is maintenance and cure. A seaman has a right to treatment until they’ve received the maximum possible medical benefit for their injuries. They have a right to treatment until the journey ends. The Long Shore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act requires ship owners to provide a system that’s similar to worker’s compensation for injured seamen.
- Duties to passengers – When a ship carries passengers, they have a duty of reasonable care to the passengers. That makes the ship owners liable for negligence claims that arise during the journey. Typically, American passengers can bring claims in U.S. federal courts. Terms between the passengers and the carrier may provide for a choice of forum. In most cases, ship owners state that passengers must bring their cases in Miami or Seattle. Courts generally enforce these choice of law agreements between passengers and ship owners.
- Liens and mortgages – Contractual disagreements arise that involve companies who do business on international waters just like they do for companies that do business on land. When these disputes arise, those involved must have a forum to resolve their disputes. In the United States, contract disputes involving maritime activities go to federal courts. Examples include defaults on loans for maritime activities and wage disputes involving maritime employees.
- Salvage and treasure – When a party recovers lost treasure and other lost cargo, a question arises as to how to fairly divide the recovered property. The party who owns the property generally has rights to it. However, the person who recovers it has a right to a reward. Salvage cargo can be money, and it can also be historical artifacts. A party trying to salvage lost cargo can enter into a contract with the property owner. That contract can state the amount of the salvage reward. If the parties don’t enter into a contract ahead of time, the party that salvages the lost cargo still has the right to a reward. It’s up to the court to decide an appropriate amount of the reward if the parties can’t agree. The amount of the reward depends on the risk of loss that the party incurs and other merits of the case. There are formal rules for engaging in salvage operations.
- Lifesaving on the high seas – There’s no salvage reward for saving a life. Seamen are expected to do their best to save the lives of those in danger on the high seas. There’s no right to a reward for saving someone’s life, but seamen are obligated to do their best to help others in peril.
Duties to clients
A ship owner has a duty of care to their clients. If a ship transfers cargo for a client, the ship owner is responsible for the safety of the cargo from loading to discharge. There are a few exceptions like acts of God and perishable goods.
Unique jurisdiction considerations
Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. federal courts jurisdiction over maritime law disputes. The federal court’s jurisdiction isn’t exclusive. Some types of cases can still go to state courts. Cases that involve property disputes like salvage cases always go to federal court. Cases like damaged cargo, products liability and personal injury can go to state or federal court.
For maritime lawyers, concurrent jurisdiction presents some unique questions and challenges. Even if a state court applies federal law, a state court always applies its own procedures. The differences can be significant. For example, in federal court, there’s no right to a jury trial except if a seaman brings a claim against their employer.
Investigating and prosecuting crime on the high seas
The U.S. Coast Guard enforces maritime law within its jurisdiction. The United States has jurisdiction up to 12 miles from its coast. The United States has limited jurisdiction for another 12 miles. The Coast Guard can board vessels and investigate illegal activity in these areas.
In U.S. jurisdiction, U.S. laws apply. Beyond the limits of U.S. waters, the law that applies is the law where the ship is registered. Even if a company markets to American passengers, their ships may be registered in another country. Criminal justice is a unique challenge when crimes occur on the high seas.
Who practices admiralty law?
Admiralty lawyers are highly skilled litigators. They must understand federal and state laws and have sound judgment to help clients choose the proper and advantageous forum. They must know what laws apply among the myriad of international agreements, federal laws and state laws that exist that might apply to the case. Admiralty lawyers must know how to successfully advocate for their clients using the rules of procedure and the body of law that applies to the case.
Maritime law is a highly skilled and specialized area of law. There aren’t many attorneys that specialize in maritime law because there’s a lot to master to practice in the field effectively. Lawyers who specialize in the field tend to gravitate towards the coasts. A lawyer might represent many different clients, or they might represent one client who regularly has maritime law needs. A lawyer might work in an advisory capacity or handle disputes and formal litigation.
Many maritime lawyers have an L.L.M. degree in the field. The L.L.M. prepares lawyers for the unique body of law and practical challenges that come with specialization in the field. Universities throughout the world offer the specialized program of study. Many law schools also offer coursework in maritime law for J.D. candidates.
Why become a maritime lawyer?
Maritime law is a specialized and exclusive area of law that can be financially and personally rewarding for attorneys in the field. If you’re interested in providing high-quality legal services in a niche area of civil litigation, maritime law may be for you. Maritime lawyers may develop a private practice that also includes other aspects of civil litigation. They might also find stability in their career by focusing on a sole client. Maritime law is a challenging and rewarding area of law that requires unique knowledge and abilities. Lawyers in the field may enjoy a unique and satisfying practice of law.
Practicing maritime law
Maritime lawyers make the seas safer. They hold wrongdoers accountable. They help people get the compensation that they deserve when there’s a breach of contract, unpaid wages or a personal injury on the seas. Maritime lawyers also help develop new maritime laws. Maritime law is complex. It involves a variety of civil laws including contract law, personal injury law, employment disputes and even lost treasure. For the attorneys who practice it, maritime law can provide a sound and challenging career.