Maritime Law 101

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a body of law that is both domestic and international. It helps to facilitate commerce and create a common ground by which to judge offenses that occur at sea.

It primarily covers navigation and shipping, along with topics like:

  • Human and employment rights
  • Property damage
  • Stowaways
  • Pollution standards
  • Piracy
  • Towage
  • Insurance
  • Shipping standards for various bodies of water
  • Recreation
  • Wrecks and salvaging
  • Transportation of passengers and goods

Each country has their own maritime laws that they adhere to. American admiralty law applies to any waters in the United States that can be navigated by boat for the purposes of interstate or foreign commerce.  International admiralty laws exist as well; formed by years of fine-tuning and countless multilateral treaties.

Which country’s laws are followed is determined by the ship’s flag. If a ship flying the American flag commits an offense in the Mediterranean Sea, it is subject to American admiralty law. Likewise, if a ship commits a crime in American waters, they must be judged according to the laws of the country whose flag they are sailing under.

Maritime Law Terminology

There are many unique legal terms that are used only when discussing maritime law. Knowing what the following words mean can help you understand admiralty law better

Administrative Claim: When a claim is pursed through administrative means as opposed to the court system.

Agent: Someone who is authorized to act on behalf of a company.

Apportionment: The process by which the defendant’s share of liability is determined.

Claimant: The injured seaman or, if the seaman is deceased, their representative.

Contributory Negligence: The percentage of fault that can be attributed to the seaman, if his negligence contributed to his injuries.

Defendant: The individual or party accused of a crime or wrongdoing.

Hitch: The length of time a maritime worker will be at sea.

Joint and Several Liability: A situation in which multiple parties are at fault for a seaman’s injury wherein the judgment may be paid by one party or split between them.

Longshoreman: Land-based maritime workers, not covered by the Jones Act, who primarily load and unload ships.

Negligence: The failure to act in a way that is safe and does not put others at risk.

Operator: The company or group in charge of the day to day operations of a vessel.

Remedy: The legal means by which a party is held liable for the injury or death of a seaman.

Seaman: A member of the ship’s crew or a worker whose job aids in the function of the vessel.

Settlement: An agreement that resolves a claim without taking it to court.

Statute of Limitations: The frame of time in which a lawsuit can be filed. For Jones Act and general maritime cases the statue of limitations is three years from the date of injury.

Unseaworthy: The state in which a vessel and all its pats, equipment, and crew are able to work as intended at sea.

Vicarious Liability: The liability a company incurs based on the acts of its agents.

Common Accidents and Injuries Occurring at Sea

A large portion of maritime accidents are the result of negligence. Some studies suggest that it may even be as high as 70%. Negligent accidents can be caused by a number of things, from improperly maintained machinery to the irresponsible actions of another person or party. Regardless of the cause, negligence can put innocent seaman and workers at great risk, both when they’re in port and on the open sea.

As maritime law attorneys, we see accidents caused by:

  • Slip and falls
  • Collisions or shifting cargo
  • Failing/loose/swinging objects
  • Chemical leaks/explosions
  • Fires
  • Groundings
  • Capsizings
  • Shallow dives
  • Broken/failing equipment
  • Winches/cables breaking
  • Lack of proper training and/or safety gear
  • Working under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Human error may contribute in some of these situations, but many can be easily prevented with good work practices and common sense. Unfortunately, whenever an accident occurs there is a risk of injury to those in the immediate area.

Injuries seaman and other maritime workers might experience include:

Laws Protecting Maritime Workers

There are two kinds of employees on the open sea: those who can be classified as seaman and those who can’t. To be considered a seaman, the employee in question must spend 30% or more of his working hours on a vessel.

Those who do not fit this description are considered to be “non-seaman workers.” This includes employees who work loading and unloading docks and, in some cases, men and women working on offshore oil rigs. These workers are covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA).

If a non-seaman worker is injured on the job, LHWCA entitles them to reasonable and necessary medical and indemnity benefits. This results in a temporary compensation of 2/3 of the worker’s weekly salary. Long term benefits depend on the severity of the injury and how permanent the resulting disability is. The final award may be 2/3 of the worker’s loss of earning capacity or it may be based on the damages done to their body parts.

If the worker can be labeled as a seaman, there are three ways they can seek compensation for injuries or wrongful death: the principle of maintenance and cure, the doctrine of unseaworthiness, and the Jones Act.

Maintenance and Cure: This principle allows an injured seaman to seek compensation from the employer under which they have a service contract. This is a right of all seaman, regardless of who was at fault or whether the injury occur onboard or not. The only exception to this rule is if the injury occurred as a result of the seaman’s’ gross willful negligence. Under this statue, the shipowner must pay for room, board, and medical treatment until maximum recovery is achieved.

Doctrine of Unseaworthiness: If the ship, or any appliance or equipment on board, is deemed defective or unseaworthy, liability falls on the shipowner. Seaman or seamen injured as a result of this unsafe environment may be able to seek additional damages.

Jones Act: Under this piece of legislation, employers must provide a reasonably safe place to work and use ordinary care to keep the vessel in safe working condition. This includes ensuring that any employees on board are fit for duty. If these conditions are not met, an injured seaman or his representative need only prove that the employer’s negligence played a role in the injuries sustained.

When to Contact a Maritime Lawyer

While similar to personal injury law, maritime law cases are much more complex. Admiralty law requires the knowledge of an attorney with years of experience and a deep understanding of both domestic and international laws.

The attorneys at Cox, Cox, Filo, Camel & Wilson have been practicing maritime law for years. We have a firm grasp of established laws and stay up to date on those that frequently change. Don’t flounder around trying to handle your own maritime or Jones Act claim. We take all cases on a contingency fee basis; meaning if you don’t win, we don’t get paid. Call now for a free consultation, and let the seasoned attorneys at Cox, Cox, Filo, Camel & Wilson take the helm.