What is Maritime Law?

Boat

Maritime Law, also known as admiralty law, is its own fundamental branch of law which regulates commerce and navigation on the high seas and other navigable waters.  The United States Constitution grants authority to the federal courts to exercise admiralty jurisdiction since maritime suits often involve questions of national importance that concern commerce, international relations, and foreign citizen rights.

Typically, admiralty jurisdiction covers cases where the claim arises from an accident on the navigable waters of the United States and involves maritime commerce.  Admiralty jurisdiction also covers contracts concerning “the navigation, business or commerce of the sea,” and crimes committed on the high seas against a US vessel or a US citizen.  Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court has held admiralty jurisdiction is not limited to cases involving commercial vessels.  Simply put, accidents involving privately owned boats on navigable waters can be brought in admiralty courts, even if the boat was only used for a fun day trip with family and friends. Other laws apply in cases involving longshoreman,stevedores, and harbor workers, which you can read about at our post: Two Powerful Remedies for Injured Longshoremen and Harbor Workers.

Photograph credit: Sail Training International

A court has exclusive jurisdiction over a claim if it has the power to hear the claim to the exclusion of all other courts.  Federal courts have exclusive original jurisdiction of all civil cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, but individuals do not have to bring maritime cases in federal courts.  Long ago, Congress issued the Judiciary Act of 1789 which gave state courts concurrent jurisdiction (meaning that a case can be brought in more than one court) to hear most types of admiralty actions as long as there is a remedy available under the common law.  In other words, state courts can hear maritime cases as long as the state court is capable of granting some relief to the parties that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to in the federal court system.

Characteristically, cases normally brought in state courts instead of federal courts are ones that involve tort actions or where a state court can get personal jurisdiction over the defendant. There are a few types of admiralty claims that a federal court has exclusive jurisdiction over and must hear, including the enforcement of a maritime lien, foreclosure on a preferred ship mortgage, limitation of the vessel owner’s liability, any proceeding where the ship itself is being sued (in rem proceeding), and maritime suits against the government.

Photography Credit: Ministry of Transport via AP Photo

It is the choice of the parties to bring their case in state or federal courts.  This choice is an important one because the parties may have different or more favorable rights under federal maritime law than they would have under state law or vise versa.  When a case is brought in state court, the court must apply the substantive federal law and state procedural law.  This rule ensures that federal maritime laws govern all maritime cases but allow the states to hear maritime cases based on their own procedures and common law.  This distinction is important because in many respects federal admiralty law differs from state law.  Possibly the most critical difference between maritime law and common law courts is that admiralty judges only apply general maritime law and conduct trials without juries.

For cases involving maritime law, such as those involving an offshore injury, it is important to find a lawyer who understands the intricacies of this complex area of law. The lawyers at Armstrong & Lee LLP are well-versed in the ins and outs of the laws that apply in maritime cases. If you or someone you know has been injured in an offshore incident and needs to speak to an experienced personal injury attorney, contact (832) 709-1124 for a consultation regarding your case.