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Maritime Law

Maritime Law

Maritime law, often called admiralty law, is a set of legal rules and practices governing the business of employment and transportation of people and goods over or near navigable waters.

Before discussing the types of activities subject to maritime law and the special remedies available to people who make their living on the seas, it’s important to first consult an attorney to help you understand what conditions must be met to trigger maritime law.

“Navigable waters” is a legal term describing all waters which are capable of transporting people or cargo between the states and other countries. Essentially it means the waterway must be usable as a highway for interstate commerce. Inland lakes that do not connect to an interstate waterway or the open sea would not meet this test. As a matter of law the open sea and waterways used for interstate commerce (such as rivers) are navigable waters.

For an incident to trigger maritime jurisdiction it must satisfy the “nexus test.” To satisfy the “nexus test” the incident must have created a potential hazard to traditional commerce and there must be a sufficient relationship between the incident and traditional maritime activities.

Types of Claims

Maritime law applies to the operation of most any type of vessel, from the largest ocean going cargo vessel, to fishing vessels, to jet skis. It also applies to more than accidents; it also governs employment issues such as wage and labor disputes, sexual and racial harassment, insurance disputes, maritime property damage, loss of cargo, damage to shoreside property by vessels, repairers of vessels, fishing rights, and many other issues. Examples of the types of injuries and accidents maritime law applies to include:

  • Towage – accidents involving towing freighters and other large ships to and from the docks are subject to maritime law.
  • Piers – accidents that occur on a pier are subject to maritime law.
  • Docks – accidents that occur on a dock are subject to maritime law.
  • Canals – accidents that occur in a canal are subject to maritime law.
  • Recreational boating.
  • Seamen – workers injured while on a ship, dock, pier, etc., are covered under maritime law by the Jones Act (see below). In addition, seamen who commit crimes while on a ship are subject to maritime law.
  • Piracy – ship hijacking.
  • Shipyards – historically, the shipyard industry has had the highest rate of on-the-job injuries.
  • Offshore drilling.
  • Shipping accidents.
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People who make their living working on a boat and qualify as “seamen” have special remedies available to them. In 1920, Congress enacted the Maritime Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act. The Jones Act provides substantial benefits to seamen injured at sea.

The Jones Act

Boating accidents injure a variety of people who work on a boat, or ship. For instance, skippers, engineers, deckhands, seamen, galley workers, fishermen, crabbers, on-board seafood processors, ferry workers, and tug & barge hands have rights under maritime law. Oil rig workers, longshoremen and ship repairers have maritime rights. The Jones Act is a federal law that extends the provisions of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a statute that provides remedies for injured workers, in order to provide similar remedies for seamen.

If an injured crew member can prove even the slightest negligence by the employer, then the injured worker may recover monetary award for pain, suffering and disability, and future medical benefits. To learn more about The Jones Act, read our article “The Jones Act.”

Death on the High Seas Act (DOSHA)

When a seaman dies as a result of an employer’s negligence or because of an unseaworthy vessel, the worker’s family may file for benefits under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). The incident must occur on the high seas beyond a marine league (three miles) from the shore of any state, the District of Columbia, or U.S. territory or dependency. The decedent’s wife, husband, parent, child or dependent relative may file a claim under the Act.

A plaintiff usually receives damages for pecuniary loss caused by the loss of the deceased seaman’s services. A DOHSA suit must commence within three years of the date of the seaman’s death.


Maritime, or admiralty law, is federal law that differs significantly from the state laws governing personal injury claims. For injured seaman, claims under the Jones Act are not the same as typical workers’ compensation claims. If you are victim of any type of maritime accident you may be entitled to significant financial recovery. It’s important to contact an attorney who has experience in maritime litigation.

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.