Maritime law (also known as admiralty law) is a very specific facet of the law that governs a wide range of nautical issues and possible maritime disputes. To put it simply, maritime law deals with legal matters related to our oceans, seas and any bodies of open water. These legal matters can range from conventions that outline how private maritime businesses operate to the investigation and prosecution of offenses that occur on the open sea.
With such a wide range of matters falling under one umbrella, some attorneys will reserve the terms ‘admiralty law’ or ‘wet law’ for topics that are wholly nautical in nature (e.g. ship collisions) and use the terms ‘maritime law’ for ‘dry law’ for land-based but nautical related topics like marine insurance. However, as attorneys who deal with all aspects, we consider maritime law to cover all these topics.
Is Maritime Law The Same Everywhere?
No – though typically laws will be quite similar, specific Maritime Law differs from country to country and between jurisdictions. For example, the United States has its own admiralty law that has been developed from the British admiralty courts that existed in that country’s many colonies in the past. At the same time, a collection of international conventions exists that is widely accepted across the globe. Originally crafted by a private group of maritime lawyers at the beginning of the 20th century, these laws are now overseen by the International Maritime Organization, a body established by the United Nations. Much country-specific legislation actually seeks to codify and support international maritime law, in order to promote continuity across jurisdictions.
What Topics Does Maritime Law Cover?
Maritime Law is truly expansive, covering a host of conventions, issues and activities. While it would be impossible to cover every aspect of admiralty law here, we can lay out some of the most common topics addressed under American Maritime Law.
Maintenance and Cure (Injuries)
Unfortunately, one of the most common topics dealt with by maritime lawyers relates to injuries sustained on the seas. Working on decks and around industrial machinery whilst on the ever-moving ocean is challenging, and despite impeccable training and considerable experience, accidents do happen resulting in injury, or worse yet, death. Lawmakers have taken this into consideration, and as a result seamen have some of the best legal protection that exists.
This includes providing free medical care to an injured seaman for the duration of the trip and beyond until they have reached what the court deems the “maximum medical cure.” This differs from “maximum medical improvement” in that the employer has a duty to provide treatment that improves his ability to function, whether it specifically improves the injury or not (e.g. wheelchairs and pain medication). Further, the company or ship owner must provide ‘maintenance’ – funds for the seaman to survive on while he recovers. And if a seaman is forced to sue to collect such money, successful suits will result in not just the ordering of maintenance and cure benefits, but also payment of lawyer fees and, in some cases, punitive damages. This can naturally be expensive for owners, who will sometimes attempt to offer a one-time payment to avoid their duties. A maritime lawyer that knows your maritime injury rights can ensure you are properly cared for and compensated.
Duty of Reasonable Care to Passengers
While rare, it does occur that civilian passengers sustain injuries while aboard ships. If the passenger can prove the injury is due to a ship owner’s negligence, that individual can then be awarded compensation. While similar to ‘negligence’ legislation, there are very specific considerations in the realm of maritime law, especially in the United States. For instance, it is common knowledge that there is a generally a three-year statute of limitations on personal injury cases, within which time a suit must be brought against the ship owner. However, fine print in passenger tickets can sometimes dramatically shorten that window. And while courts have made it illegal to exclude liability for injury or death in cases of clear negligence, there are still ways for companies to attempt to shift blame to employees or third parties who, realistically, will be unable to financially meet the fair level of compensation levied by the court. An experienced maritime lawyer is well versed in these tactics, and can ensure companies and owners do not shrink their responsibility.
Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
While this falls under injury law, it warrants its own focus due to its importance and being widely misunderstood. As the name suggests, this law provides federal compensation protection to those who work in harbors, ports, shipyards and the like. It is assumed by many (a misunderstanding encouraged by less moral companies) that the stringent protections of maritime law do not apply to those working in these situations. This is simply not true – from crane operators to clerical office works, those employed at docks and shipyards receive the full protection of this act. In fact, certain extensions (e.g. the Defense Base Act) ensures that certain non-maritime workers receive coverage as well. Most importantly, this coverage is ‘no fault’ – meaning that whether the injury your, the employer, or nobody’s fault, you are entitled to some level of compensation. A maritime lawyer can walk you through the specifics of this extremely important portion of Maritime Law.
When an injury on the seas results in the most unthinkable of circumstances and death occurs, the Jones Act and the Death On The High Seas Act provides families with the right to sue for wrongful death. There are also many non-injury related aspects of Maritime Law, including:
Liens, Mortgages and other Contractual Issues
Unlike land based disagreements of this type that often go to civil courts and arbitration, maritime disputes are sent to federal courts. Loan defaults and ongoing mortgage disputes are a common example here. However, the courts also provide maritime employees who are claiming unpaid or underpaid wages a forum in which to make their case.
Salvage and Treasure
While one may think this is a topic better left for blockbuster movie franchises featuring pirates and Hollywood stars, salvage is a very real activity on the high seas and as such laws are in place to protect both property owners and those who take on the risk of retrieving such property that has been lost at sea. Two types of salvage exist – ‘contract salvage’ and ‘merit salvage’. The first, as the name suggests, refers to when a property owner and a salvage professional (a ‘salvor’) enter into an agreement that lays out the amount or percentage of the property’s value the salvor will receive. Merit salvage, meanwhile, exists when no agreement has been made between the salvor and the property owner. If the two parties cannot come to an agreement on their own post-salvage, a court will award an amount based upon the value of the property and the effort expended/danger faced by the salvaging party.
International Maritime Law
As previously mentioned, there are a number of conventions that hold fast across borders and on the open seas for countries that have signed treaties related to these international maritime laws. Known colloquially as ‘The Law of The Sea’, these conventions have been issued by the UN through the International Maritime Organization (IMO). For the most part, the laws here address insurance claims related to vessels and their cargo, vessel registration and licensing, inspection of ships, rules regarding the carriage of passengers and/or goods, any civil matters that may arise and piracy. While there a considerable number of conventions produced by the IMO, there are three that are considered the ‘core’ conventions of these international agreements:
- The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers
- The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea
- The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships
With the rapid progress of technology and changing shipping techniques, amendments are continuously being made to existing conventions, while at the same time new conventions are added where necessary. In the past, the process required for amendments was so lengthy and complex, delays of many years would occur – or amendments would fail to pass altogether. However, with the introduction of ‘tacit agreement’ (amendments passing unless a certain number of states object), the efficient acceptance of these changes has greatly improved.
The matter of enforcement of ‘The Law of The Sea’ has been designed to avoid the creation of a central enforcement body, which would be extremely expensive and, most likely, a logistical nightmare. Instead, member states have the responsibility to enforce the provisions of the conventions for their ships and to set penalties for any infringements. In some cases , countries have a certain amount of power with respect to ships of other member states. An often used tool across many conventions is that of a certificate issued showing ships have been inspected and found to adhere to the necessary requirements.
Why Would I Need a Maritime Lawyer?
Many an individual or company has found themselves in financial hot water, unable to proceed with important business dealings, or charged and at the mercy of the court after running afoul of maritime law. And as a specialized field, the particularities of maritime law will not be familiar to an attorney not trained in the field. This becomes particularly important when you are aware of an important fact – federal maritime law will almost always take precedent over state laws – even if a matter is being heard in a state court. The implications of this are clear – without a maritime lawyer to advise you, it is very possible to run afoul of maritime law through actions that would not be illegal under other bodies of law. Further, if you are injured or become a complainant in a maritime case, an experienced maritime lawyer can immediately apprise you of your rights and seek proper compensation.
I Often Work and Operate in International Waters, or I Am Going on a Foreign Cruise. Won’t I Need a Lawyer in Each Country?
This is another peculiar aspect of maritime law where your maritime lawyer’s knowledge and experience comes into handy. Unlike other laws, admiralty law is not a cut and dry case of ‘the law of the land is the law that will stand.’ Rather, the maritime law that applies in each case is the law of the jurisdiction where the ship is registered. For example, if you are injured in Chinese waters while working on a ship official registered in the United States, U.S. maritime injury laws will be the ones followed. It is important to note that this rule, informally referred to as “the ship’s flag,” requires that the ship is legitimately considered of that country. It is not unheard of that a ship or company will fly another country’s flag due to less stringent laws or the possibility of favorable treatment. Maritime lawyers ensure that as an employee, passenger or company, you are afforded the full protections of American Maritime Law.
Experienced and Passionate Maritime Injury Lawyers
For nearly 45 years, the maritime attorneys at the offices of Charles D. Naylor have fought for injured seamen and seawomen as well as the families of deceased maritime employees. Obtaining verdicts as high as $55 million, the highly experienced team has received multiple ‘top attorney’ awards. Based in San Pedro, California, a stone’s throw away from the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, Charles D. Naylor and his team are recognized as some of Southern California’s most skilled and experienced maritime lawyers. Contact us to take advantage of our more than 100 years combined experience – whether for simple legal advice or to pursue an injury claim. We understand the strain these issues can put you and your family under, and as such offer free case evaluations along with our firm “pay nothing unless we win your case” policy. Call us or contact us through our website today!