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What Is Admiralty Law?

Today, admiralty law is also known as maritime law. Initially, admiralty law referred to the legal process of litigating admiralty claims in court. Both admiralty and maritime are interchangeable when referring to this area of law.

Admiralty law is invoked when there is an injury on a navigable body of water. Admiralty law also handles disputes involving maritime contracts and federal maritime statutes.

Federal Jurisdiction

The United States Constitution gives federal courts jurisdiction over “all cases in admiralty and maritime." This means admiralty is the only practice area granted federal jurisdiction in the Constitution. Case law has developed to become known as general maritime law. Additionally, states have their own maritime statutes. Federal courts allow claimants to recover under both federal and state law for maritime claims.

Maritime cases consist of torts and contracts. Maritime torts encompass:

  • Personal injury claims
  • Boating accidents
  • Vessel collisions

Maritime torts must have occurred on a navigable body of water. Admiralty law governs maritime contracts such as:

  • Marine insurance
  • Bills of lading (which deal with goods shipped on board a vessel)
  • Cruise ship passenger contracts

Federal Maritime Statutory Remedies

Congress has provided federal statutes that give rights to seamen (Jones Act), longshoremen (LHWCA), seafarer's beneficiaries (DOHSA), and shipowner and cargo owners (COGSA).

Jones Act: Gives seamen (crew members) rights when they are injured onboard the vessel during the scope of their employment. If a seaman is injured, they can recover costs for medical care. The Jones Act also holds the employer accountable for providing a reasonably safe place to work. A seaman may have a claim for unseaworthiness if the vessel has a defective condition that caused a seaman's injury.

  • Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA): A federal wrongful death remedy for decedents fatally injured on the high seas, 3 nautical miles from shore. The decedent's beneficiaries can recover for pain and suffering and other damages. Disclaimer: Any individual can recover under this statute on behalf of a loved one. The decedent does not have to be a maritime employee (e.g., a worker dies from an oil rig explosion; or an individual falls off a yacht).
  • Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA): Federal statute and codification of the international law treaty, the “Hague Rules." COGSA determines the rights and liabilities of shipowners and cargo owners when they are loading and unloading cargo, in transit, or have lost or spoiled cargo, etc.

Terms To Know

  • Admiralty Court: A federal court, sitting in admiralty, has jurisdiction over maritime cases when admiralty rules are used
  • U.S. Coast Guard: A federal agency responsible for enforcing all federal laws on the oceans, seas, and other bodies of water in or near the United States
  • Jurisdiction: A legal term for the court's authority to hear a specific case; federal courts generally have jurisdiction over admiralty cases
  • Maritime: Anything related to navigation on water; another word for admiralty

For more definitions, visit the FindLaw Legal Dictionary.

Hiring an Admiralty Law Attorney

Admiralty law is a specialization that requires a maritime lawyer with knowledge of the maritime industry.

A maritime attorney will help you determine which types of maritime claims you may have. If you are a seaman (if you work on a vessel), you should look for a Jones Act lawyer.

If insurance companies refuse to cover medical bills for an injury on a vessel (or any maritime accident), call a maritime lawyer. Maritime attorneys can give you legal advice about whether an injury qualifies as a maritime injury.

If you have a maritime legal issue, contact an admiralty lawyer immediately to explore your legal options.

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