Maritime law, also referred to today as admiralty law, is the area of law concerned with the activity that takes place on navigable waters such as the Ocean.
Injuries and incidents on cruise ships, cargo vessels, pleasure craft, jet skis, and other vessels are treated differently than other types of legal injury claims. A special body of laws, conventions, and treaties collectively called admiralty & maritime law — interchangeable terms in today’s language — establish legal rules applicable to civil litigation and insurance claims related to ships, shipping, and offshore work.
Maritime and admiralty law covers various categories and offshore circumstances including cruise ships, cargo vessels, marine commerce, sea navigation, negligence, unseaworthiness, and civil marine torts and injuries to name a few.
Our law firm focuses specifically on maritime law, with a prolific history of winning settlements and verdicts for our clients that have suffered catastrophic injuries, accidents and/or the death of a loved one while aboard a cruise ship, ferry, tugboat, barge, cargo ship, oil rig, commercial fishing boat — or any other vessel at sea.
What Constitutes Maritime and Admiralty Law?
At one time, the terms “admiralty law” and “maritime law” had two different meanings. “Admiralty” once referred to the judicial court in England and the early American colonies that handled legal matters related to shipping. Maritime law later emerged to handle cases related to sea travel and commerce. Eventually, the two discrete but closely related practices merged, and similarly the terms merged into one legal discipline.
Unlike some areas of the law that are codified in the federal and state statutes, admiralty and maritime law in the U.S. can fall under the jurisdiction of federal law, state law, international treaties with single or multiple nations, and the common law, or that derived from court case rulings. In addition, state laws can also have an impact on a maritime law case.
Interestingly, when it comes to maritime law, the same case may be argued in a Florida court, a U.S. court, and the court of another state, depending on the circumstances of the case. As a result of the application of both domestic and foreign laws in maritime cases, there are often gaps in maritime and admiralty law that require courts to apply laws from various jurisdictions to arrive at a reasonable conclusion to a given dispute.
If an individual has sustained a maritime-related injury, meaning an injury at sea or an injury related to employment at sea, legal jurisdiction will be an important factor in the case. Put simply, jurisdiction dictates the right or authority of a court to apply and interpret the law as it relates to your case.
Not all courts have the authority to hear and decide on every type of case. When it comes to admiralty cases, federal district courts are given the power to hear such cases under the U.S. Constitution. Also, in certain situations, a state court is permitted to decide on an admiralty case. In cases where both the state and federal courts are authorized to handle the case, the jurisdiction would be referred to as “concurrent” jurisdiction, where the complainant may be able to decide which court they prefer to file in.
Generally, if a case stems from an incident that took place in U.S. navigable waters and involves either two vessels crashing, injury to a seaman, or injury to a passenger on a vessel, the case will likely be subject to admiralty jurisdiction. Moreover, cases in which a crime, such as a rape or sexual assault, was committed against an American citizen or a vessel on the high seas generally falls within admiralty jurisdiction.
When it comes to contracts, cases that involve agreements related to commerce, navigation, or business of the sea — e.g., chartered vessels or cargo transport — are typically subject to admiralty jurisdiction as well.
The implications of admiralty jurisdiction are so that a maritime case is handled much differently than its onshore counterpart. For example, a slip and fall incident aboard a cruise ship defers to an entirely different set of laws, governed by General Maritime Law, as opposed to a slip-and-fall accident would defer to a stateside drug store.
The convenience store incident would fall under the state law jurisdiction, where the offshore incident would fall under admiralty and maritime law. For this reason, it is important to consult with an offshore injury lawyer to ensure your case is handled appropriately.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “navigable waterways are those waters of the U.S. that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide shoreward to the mean high water mark, and that are presently used, have been used in the past, or could be susceptible to use for transport of interstate or foreign commerce.”
This concept is important when seeking to establish jurisdiction in the case of a maritime injury, accident, death, or assault.
Admiralty and Maritime Laws That Affect Your Case
The Jones Act
The Jones Act protects seamen on navigable waters who become injured as a result of their employer’s negligence while they are in the service of a vessel — regardless of whether the injury occurs aboard the vessel or on land. This act requires employers to provide a safe work environment for seamen. The Legal Information Institute (LLI) of Cornell Law explains that “the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, is a federal statute establishing support for the development and maintenance of a merchant marine in order to support commercial activity and serve as a naval auxiliary in times of war or national emergency.”
Essentially, the Jones Act designates that seamen employed on a vessel or working on a vessel while in port have legal protections with regard to workplace injuries. Seamen covered under this federal law should pursue legal representation by an attorney with a prolific history of successfully dealing with Jones Act cases.
Unfortunately, it is common for employers or the responsible party to attempt to minimize a victim’s injury or frame the circumstances in a way that limits their liability, reduces the perception of their involvement, or highlights the victim’s alleged negligence. Avoid this painful reality by engaging with our maritime law firm before you make any decisions or statements or take any actions that could impact your case and jeopardize any reward you may be entitled to.
The Jones Act vs. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA)
The Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act or the LHWCA provide compensation for work-related injuries sustained by separate categories of maritime workers. The Jones Act covers a “master or member of a crew of any vessel,” whereas the LHWCA covers the essential maritime workers that work in piers, ports, terminals, and docks and otherwise sea-related roles without being part of a vessel’s permanent crew. The distinction is important as is employing an attorney versed in carrying forth complaints from both categories of workers.
Death on the High Seas Act
The Death on the High Seas Act protects the families of individuals whose death at sea occurred as the result of a wrongful act or under otherwise negligent circumstances.
Deaths that occur a certain distance away from or within a U.S. shoreline can be subject to a variety of laws. And believe it or not, the simple question of the location of the vessel is arguably the most critical component because of the implications regarding the law that applies to the claims.
Deaths That Occur Less Than Three Miles From a U.S. Shoreline
Individuals should be aware that general wrongful death laws will apply if a passenger or a sea worker is killed while he or she is still within three nautical miles of a state shoreline (or within U.S. territorial waters).
Additionally, if a crewmember or seaman who is within three nautical miles of a U.S. shoreline dies because of a ship owner’s or employer’s negligence, the Jones Act might also be applicable and such a claim can be filed right along with a general wrongful death claim.
Deaths That Occur More Than Three Miles From a U.S. Shoreline
Many attorneys are often faced with cases that involve deaths that took place more than three miles away from a U.S. shoreline. What spouses and family members should know about such deaths is that they are generally covered by the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Generally, DOHSA will apply to all individuals who were killed in accidents that took place more than three miles out from a U.S. shoreline, no matter whether the individual was a maritime worker or not.
As a general rule, DOHSA is a nasty federal law that dramatically limits the recovery that can be made in a death claim. For example, the Act limits the amount of wrongful death damages that spouses, children, parents, and dependent relatives will be able to recover, and individuals should note that only “pecuniary” damages will be recoverable under this particular law. Pecuniary damages are those damages that can be quantified in terms of a dollar amount. That said, family members will not be able to recover damages for things like loss of companionship or consortium.
Having said that, an experienced attorney knows that there are ways to make a substantial recovery in a death claim, if done correctly.
Loved ones should also be aware that a lawsuit under the Act must be brought within three years from the date of the seaman’s death. Additionally, in cases involving the wrongful death of a crewmember, the decedent’s personal representative could choose to bring an action under either general maritime wrongful death laws or under DOHSA.
The Law of Unseaworthiness
According to the Maryland Law Review, “a shipowner has an absolute duty to certain persons working upon his ship to furnish a seaworthy vessel, that is, a ship and its appurtenances be reasonably fit for their intended use. If the ship is unseaworthy, the shipowner is liable for personal injury caused by such unseaworthiness to persons to whom the ‘warranty’ extends.”
Essentially, an owner and/or operator of a ship is responsible to the crew for providing a vessel fit for sea travel. If an accident or injury should occur because of the shipowner’s negligence, the injured party is entitled to seek damages for his or her pain and suffering.
The success of these types of claims relies on the victim’s representation — specifically, their ability to prove that the vessel was unseaworthy. Only a law firm that focuses solely on admiralty law like Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, P.A. is capable of compiling the evidence to support this type of claim to prove that the vessel was indeed unseaworthy at the time the incident occurred.