An Overview Of Maritime Law

Maritime Law is also known in English speaking countries as Admiralty Law.  It embodies the case law and statutes governing disputes arising on navigable waters. This area of law is a complex matrix of different laws and international treaties often overlapping each other.   Maritime law is an interesting mix of ancient legal theories, modern statutes, contract law and international treaties. It governs both shipping and navigation, and, increasingly, private recreational boating.


The ancient Egyptians engaged in a great deal of shipping, as did the Phoenicians, and we can assume there was a least a basic system of resolving conflicts.  The Mediterranean was the center of the world at that point, and Rhodes is credited with the first documented maritime law, referenced in Roman writings and ultimately referred to as Rhodian Sea Law.

Other Mediterranean countries developed their own systems, such as Italy and Spain, but much of it was based on these early Rhodian laws.

Once the British Empire expanded its power throughout the world, much of  maritime law was based on England’s admiralty court law, and that has greatly influenced the U.S. concepts of maritime law. (Not surprisingly, much of  U.S. law in general was patterned after English law.)

Where Does Maritime Law Apply?

For the United States, maritime law applies for occurrences on navigable waters.  These have been defined as any waters which are used for trade, travel or commerce between states or foreign nations.  This includes the high seas, harbors, bays, inlets and rivers that run between states.  However, if a body of water is contained entirely within one state, such as a lake, then federal admiralty jurisdiction does not apply.

The territorial waters offshore of a country used to be limited to 3 nautical miles – the distance a cannon shot could travel.  Since a 1982 international treaty was implemented, that distance is now at most 12 nautical miles.  State waters are limited to 3 nautical miles.  There is a concept called exclusive economic zone, which extends up to 200 miles and allows a country to benefit from the natural resources, such as fishing or oil exploration in that zone.  You can imagine that for countries with close neighbors, disputes might arise over which country can benefit from which natural resources.

What Types of Claims Arise Under Maritime Law?

You would be surprised at the wide range of claims that are adjudicated under maritime law.  These claims include shipping accidents, oil spills, injured seamen or passengers and lots of other issues.  It can also applies to criminal activity, piracy, salvage of a boat, towage contracts, liens and mortgages on a ship and insurance issues.   The sheer magnitude of the variety of claims means you need experienced maritime law guidance.

State or Federal Court?                  

According to Article III Section 2 of the United States Constitution, jurisdiction is reserved to the federal courts, and there are certain maritime claims that can only be tried in federal court, such as those seeking to enforce mortgages or liens, or those seeking to partition ownership of a vessel.  Petitions to limit liability of the ship owners after a major accident to the value of the ship are only heard in federal court.

However, there is a “saving to suitors” clause that allows certain cases to be brought in state court, if they also have state common law tort claims, as long as federal law is applied.   In some cases, you want the case to be heard in state court rather than federal.

Confused yet?   This is why you need experienced maritime lawyers assisting you in these matters.  As you can see, this is a very complex area of law; just deciding which court to bring your claim into is not an easy question.  You must obtain counsel experienced in maritime law, or you may forfeit your claim.

The Flag Matters

A longstanding rule is that the flag the ship is flying determines the law applied to the ship and crew; for instance, a ship flying a Panamanian flag in U.S. waters would generally be subject to the admiralty law of Panama.  (The ship must actually be registered with the country; they can’t just fly any flag!)

There are many instances where exceptions to this general rule apply, however, so don’t automatically assume that must be the case in any given maritime issue.

What Does This Mean For Me?

If you have been injured on a cruise ship, or while working on a ship, then your claim will likely be adjudicated under maritime law.  There are very specific time frames within which you must file a claim, and, in the case of cruise ship passengers, some restrictions contained within your ticket.  If you are an injured seaman, then the federal Jones Act will apply to your case (but the concepts are based on maritime law).

If you have been involved in a boating accident, and have property damage, this will also be decided under maritime law.  Because of the complexity of this matrix of laws and treaties, you need to obtain legal counsel experienced in maritime law.

This discussion merely skims the surface of a very deep body of law, and in no way is meant to be a complete review of maritime law – that would take many more pages.  If you have questions, or think you have a claim, you should consult with an attorney experienced in maritime law.