Maritime law, which is also called admiralty law, is a branch of the law that covers most aspects of maritime activities, including shipping, navigation, seamen, piers and docks, wharves, canals, recreational activities and ships, towage, maritime liens, and even piracy. Maritime law is similar to, but separate from, civil law. The practice of common law, or using precedent, is not binding in maritime law, but may be used in some situations.
The History of Maritime Law
The development of the law in the U.S. began with British admiralty courts, which were separate from other types of courts of law when America was a colony of Britain. The Judiciary Act of 1789, signed by President George Washington, gave jurisdiction for maritime law to the newly-created federal courts. Admiralty law, and the U.S. federal courts’ rights to have jurisdiction over it, comes from the Constitution. Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that federal judicial power extends to, among other things, “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” Article I describes the powers of Congress and gives the legislative branch the ability to regulate these laws. At one time, maritime law in the U.S. only applied to tidal waters, which excluded many non-coastal waterways like lakes and rivers. Today it applies to any navigable waters in the U.S. that can be used for interstate commerce, foreign commerce, or recreation.
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Maritime Rights and Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction largely falls under federal courts, but because maritime courts cannot extend to non-maritime matters, there is a “Savings to Suitors Clause.” This allows a party to request the use of common law through state courts, concurrently with maritime courts, for things like property claims, cargo damage, or even personal injury. These are instances in which it is reasonable for the party to have the right to a jury trial under common law. Admiralty law dictates that the flag of a ship is what determines the law by which it is bound. This means that a U.S. ship in foreign waters is subject to U.S. maritime law, but a foreign ship in American waters is subject to the laws of its own country.
The Jones Act and Maintenance and Cure
This body of law covers many aspects of maritime activities and there are several different Acts that are a part of this body of law. Both the Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, and maritime maintenance and cure, protect seaman in the case of on-the-job accidents and injuries. The Jones Act also includes regulation of U.S. port commerce.
The Longshore Harbor and Workers’ Compensation Outer Continental Shelf Acts
To protect those maritime workers who do not qualify under the definition of seaman, there is the Longshore Harbor and Workers’ Compensation Act. The Outer Continental Shelf lands Act protects those working in this area between the open ocean and the continent, typically oil rig workers.
The Death on the High Seas Act
For the dependents of seamen and other maritime workers, the Death on the High Seas Act of 1920 provides compensation and damages in the event of a death on the job. The law also provides for passengers on recreational or transportation vessels and allows for claims of negligence or unseaworthiness in a variety of situations.
Working Accidents Covered by Maritime Law
Through the various acts that make up maritime rights, there are countless examples of incidents and accidents that are covered. The maritime environment is a high-risk one and there are inherent dangers. Claims can be made based on any number of accidents. Some of these including slips and falls, falling overboard, fishing injuries, broken limbs or amputations, repetitive stress injuries, head injuries, toxic fume exposure, and chemical burns. Accidents that may be covered by a claim under the law may happen for various reasons.
There could be defective products or ship equipment at fault for an accident. These types of accidents can also occur on docks and piers, not only on ships and may happen to seaman or harbor workers. Other reasons for injuries and accidents include inadequate training of a worker or workers, or the unseaworthiness of a vessel. The sinking of a ship is also a possibility, but should be avoidable. These accidents at sea can happen in any type of vessel. Recreational and transportation ships, like cruise ships and ferries can be the site of accidents and injuries to passengers or crew members. Fishing vessels are particularly high risk for workers, especially crab boats. Other ships that may be involved in accidents include dredgers, seiners, lifeboats, tugboats, and tankers. Accidents can happen in a variety of settings too. Maritime accidents aren’t just for the open ocean; they can occur on navigable rivers, inland lakes, and on oil rigs on the continental shelf.
Accidents and Equipment
The law also covers a number of accidents specifically caused by equipment problems. Cranes, cargo, conveyor belts used for loading and unloading, plate freezers, ladders and steps, fish processing equipment, and winches can all cause accidents if faulty or used improperly. Fires on ships and in harbors, chemicals stored in harbor facilities or on ships, and other types of dangerous cargo can also cause accidents and injuries that may be covered.
Anyone involved in maritime activities in the U.S. or aboard a U.S. ship is protected by maritime law and has the right to seek damages in the case of injury, loss of property, damage to property, death, and other instances. The diverse laws that provide workers with maritime rights are designed to cover a variety of situations and to protect and compensate those who have been the victims of negligence, crime, or unseaworthiness.