How is maritime law different from other law in the United States? 

Maritime vs. Non-Maritime Law in the United States: Because maritime law has developed for the purpose of facilitating maritime commerce, maritime law has a number of differences from non-maritime law, many of which first developed from the ancient sea codes and English development of those codes. For example:

  • maritime law liability standards are often different than those under local laws
  • damages under maritime law are often different than those under local laws
  • maritime cases can be brought in federal court without regard to diversity of citizenship or amounts in controversy
  • maritime cases are generally tried to a judge, rather than a jury
  • maritime law often treats ships as legal “persons,” in rem
  • maritime cases permit ex parte pre-judgment attachment of property without any need to show good cause (subject to certain jurisdictional standards)
  • maritime law includes limitation of liability rights for ship owners
  • most maritime cases are not subject to statutory “limitation” deadlines, unlike cases under state law, but instead are evaluated for timeliness under the equitable doctrine of laches
  • oral contracts are always valid under maritime law, but often not valid under state law
  • parties in maritime cases can often take advantage of expedited discovery rules and other means to obtain evidence quickly

Maritime law is a dynamic and evolving branch of law in the United States through both developments in maritime common law and through congressional and federal government administrative actions. Congress and the courts continue to grapple with new maritime issues presented by offshore energy exploration, changes in transportation technologies and systems, and ever-increasing use of waterways for energy, trade, fishing, and recreation. Maritime law may extend to non-maritime matters if the activities are related to maritime matters. U.S. Supreme Court cases, in 2004 and 2010, significantly expanded the reach of maritime law to cover even the inland portions of multi-modal shipments due to the need to allow for a uniform remedy system to cover shipments from point of origin to point of destination. Other combinations of congressional action and judicial decisions have led to a gradual expansion of maritime jurisdiction. For example, the reach of the Death on the High Seas Act has expanded as courts—and Congress— have confirmed that the act covers deaths from offshore aviation accidents as well as those onboard ships. In commercial litigation, an expansive reading of maritime law’s remedy of maritime attachment to cover wire transfers passing through intermediate banks in New York led to a massive volume of maritime cases in New York until the Second Circuit Court of Appeals —encouraged by overwhelmed district court judges—put some limits on the practice. Maritime law has also been extended to civil forfeitures arising under federal criminal laws. Although maritime law is a unique body of law, it has many links to state laws and other federal law. In those cases where existing maritime law does not address a particular issue, a maritime judge may look to state laws to guide the decision. In state courts, judges trying maritime cases under the “Savings to Suitors” clause—such as those involving boating accidents or maritime contracts —must apply maritime law. As a consequence, federal maritime law and state  laws are interrelated, with developments in one system necessarily affecting the other.