Maritime law is a mix of common practices and laws adopted by seafaring nations for generations. There is documentation of individual judgments and the establishment of common rules that pre-date European admiralty doctrines. Documented as the earliest maritime code, was the maritime code of the island of Rhodes. As well, the customs of early Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks played a major role in the development and establishment of maritime law.
The English system of admiralty law contributed to the establishment of U.S. Maritime Law. The English system first dealt with cases of naval discipline or piracy. Later, commercial issues as applied to seafaring activities were put under their jurisdiction. The three arches of modern admiralty law contributed to the early English Admiralty laws. These early laws were known as the laws of Hansa Towns, laws of Wisbey, and the laws of Oleron, which were enacted as commerce from the Mediterranean moved northward and westward. These laws were brought to the Americas in the 1600s, when the vice-admiralty courts were established in major seaports.
In the United States, Maritime Law or Admiralty Law came into effect when the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave federal district courts jurisdiction over admiralty law cases, which made the U.S. Supreme Court the final authority on admiralty issues. Although all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction were put under federal jurisdiction, there is still a ‘saving’ clause that allows state courts to hear some maritime cases. Although not all of the original principles of Admiralty Law still apply, there are principles that are used today such as Maintenance and Cure, Marine Insurance, General Average, and Salvage.
While modern ships and instant communication have made sea travel much safer, the hazards of the sea continue to cause injury, death and damage to ships and cargo, and there are new hazards created by industrialization which have been taken into account by maritime law. For instance, there are new hazards associated with cargo carried on ships, such as natural gas and crude oil. Cargos such as these have increased the risk of a maritime accident far beyond the ship and its crew, giving rise to new concerns regarding the liability of a ship owner for damage to the marine environment and ecology. These concerns lead to the passage of maritime laws making ship owners “strictly liable” for damage caused by oil spills, and to new work rules for seamen on tankers and other types of vessels.
Today maritime law consists of laws that are derived from legislative enactments, judicial decisions, and international treaties. Those who are affected by maritime law include crew members of vessels, longshore and ship yard workers, passengers, ship owners, cargo owners, marine insurers and many others. One of the most significant modern maritime statutes is known as the Jones Act, which was adopted in 1920 as a way to protect seamen and vital U.S. interests by supporting a U.S. merchant marine fleet. Under the Jones Act “seamen” were given the right to sue for injury or death caused by the neglect of their employer. In addition to the statutory rights provided by the Jones Act, general maritime law allows seamen to seek damages from ship owners when they fail to provide a seaworthy vessel, and both seamen and non-seamen to file claims against third-party individuals for any negligence that contributed to injury or death. Modern maritime law thus provides protections to Jones Act seamen and non-Jones Act seamen injured while in a maritime environment.