Transportation law covers most aspects of travel and commerce on the streets, air, and water. This includes regulating vehicles and vessels, safety standards, and shipping activity. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is the primary federal regulatory agency.
Individual states often also have their own transportation authorities to regulate state roads and transportation hubs. Still, federal agencies lead the way nationwide. Federal agencies charged with regulating the various means of transportation include:
When legal issues arise on the land, whether they are criminal matters or a personal injury case, state laws handle them. Legal issues on the water or at 25,000 feet may need special legal rules. Admiralty law is unique, and few attorneys specialize in this practice area.
Transportation Industry Law
The transportation industry covers everything from automobiles to the 1,300-foot long, 240,000-deadweight-tonnage Panamax container ships that dock at U.S. ports. If a vehicle drives on, flies over, or floats around the U.S., transportation laws affect it. Transportation attorneys are there to deal with the legal issues that arise.
Most people are familiar with motor vehicle laws. These are mainly state laws, although the basis of the laws is set by the DOT and legislation enacted by Congress. Cars manufacturers follow regulations set by the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). If you're injured in a car accident and file a personal injury claim, it's because of violations of these regulations or similar state laws.
Admiralty law, or maritime law, combines U.S. and international law that covers all contracts, torts, injuries, or offenses on navigable waters. Admiralty law began on the ocean (hence "admiralty") but now includes lakes and rivers. Admiralty or maritime law covers interactions between ships, ship captains and crews, and the rights of crew members.
Admiralty law includes oil rigs, docks and piers, and workers on those platforms. The Jones Act (The Merchant Marine Act of 1920) allows oil rig workers and dockers, among others, to receive workers' compensation insurance for injuries suffered at sea.
Federal district courts hear admiralty cases. Insurance companies may want arbitration in admiralty claims, as in any other accident claim, but a federal arbitrator still hears the case.
Aviation law is almost entirely in the jurisdiction of the federal government. States have very little authority to pass laws about the licensing, manufacture, or regulation of aircraft. State and local governments have some local authority to restrict flight paths for noise reduction. They must coordinate with the FAA, which has the final say over flight safety.
Since most people only know about aviation laws when there is a serious commercial airline accident, the number of air travel regulations may surprise you. The FAA keeps tabs on everything, including the certification of flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and mechanics.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a civilian agency investigating all airplane accidents. It has no direct authority over the FAA or any aircraft manufacturer. The NTSB can only make recommendations after an investigation determines the cause of an accident. Victims and families who file personal injury claims or wrongful death actions after a commercial crash may have to wait months or years for the NTSB to complete its investigation. In these cases, personal injury lawyers may file mass torts or class-action suits to keep the statute of limitations from expiring.
Few people thought much about railroad transport laws until 38 tank cars of toxic chemicals derailed in an Ohio suburb in 2023. Soon, nationwide transportation companies sought experienced attorneys to review their rail policies for accidental derailing coverage.
Rail laws in America are very old and date to the middle of the 1800s when railroad travel was the only way to get across the country. In 1893, Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act (RSAA) to force railroad companies to install air brakes and automatic couplers on trains rather than manual couplers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress has authority via the Commerce Clause to regulate safety over interstate rail traffic.
As with airline crashes, the NTSB must investigate rail accidents and close an investigation before survivors can file personal injury or wrongful death claims in state or federal court.
When You Need a Transportation Lawyer
If you need legal services because of a transportation-related incident, look first at the nature of the incident. An ordinary auto accident or chemical exposure might only need an accident lawyer. If you work for a motor carrier, such as a bus company, you can still get legal representation from any competent personal injury attorney.
But, if your case involves a ship or an aircraft, you need someone with a particular set of skills and years of experience. You will need legal counsel who knows the federal laws that pertain to maritime, air travel, or rail transport. Transportation lawyers will be aware of the unique laws in those jurisdictions. If you need legal advice for a federal transportation matter, contact a transportation law attorney to protect your rights in any legal or procedural setting.