Maritime Law

Maritime commerce concerns the movement of goods and passengers by ships, maritime law is primarily about ships. Maritime law governs the contracts for the hiring and use of ships, the manning, repair, and insuring of ships, accidents involving ships on the water or ashore, and the registration, financing, supplying, operation, and salvage of ships. While maritime law does not govern contracts for the construction or sale of ships, those matters are also intertwined with maritime law issues. Broadly speaking, maritime law is one of the oldest and most vital forms of international law. Maritime codes originally developed in ancient seaports from the need to provide predictable, acceptable rules to govern trading ships, their commerce and their crews, as they carried passengers and goods from place to place. Merchants and ship owners would be understandably reluctant to send their ships to ports where arbitrary local laws could expose them to unexpected legal procedures, long delays, prosecution of their crews and the possible loss of their ships due to legal claims. To address those concerns and attract trade, ports would publish maritime codes addressing the duties of ship owners and masters, the treatment of stranded or injured crews, the resolution of cargo claims, and the disposition of collision cases, among other things. Maritime codes would also spell out special procedures, designed to meet the needs of international maritime commerce. As with any other body of law, the precise contours of current maritime law within each national jurisdiction depends greatly upon how it has been developed and enacted within that country. In the United States, maritime law is federal law, to be found, developed, and interpreted by the federal district courts as a matter of express constitutional authority. Article III of the Constitution provides that “the judicial power shall extend to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” Maritime commerce today is perhaps even more vital than it was in ancient times, and the importance of well-established international norms of maritime law is even greater. Yet many of the concepts, standards, and practices of maritime law are unique and can produce outcomes much different than what might be expected under the civil or common law applicable in other areas of economic life. As a consequence, to understand the specific provisions of maritime law, one should start with an understanding of the fundamentals and the scope of maritime law. The foundation of maritime law is a significant body of well-established common law, developed from ancient practices of maritime commerce and from the decisions of maritime courts applying those standards of traditional admiralty law, in what has become known in the U.S. courts as “the general maritime law”. Maritime law also includes statutory enactments, many of which are driven by, or at least based upon, international conventions and agreements, as well as established maritime customs. In some ways, maritime law has developed apart from -and somewhat in tension with -local civil laws. It has done so because the fundamental purpose of maritime law is different from that of the civil law. While the civil law developed to help maintain a civil society and resolve disputes between members of a single nation, maritime law developed to promote the just and speedy resolution of disputes among persons from possibly different countries involved in maritime commerce. In England, the admiralty courts often battled the civil courts, for reasons more related to access to court fees and jurisdictional power than legal policy and jurisprudence. In the United States, the tension between admiralty courts and local courts has been more affected by the tensions inherent in federal form of government. The designation of a matter as an “admiralty” matter brings it within federal jurisdiction, and makes it subject to the federal maritime law. The necessary consequence is that the state law that would otherwise apply is supplanted by the federal rule of decision. To balance the national interest in a uniform maritime law with the local state interest in preserving state jurisdiction over local matters, the federal Judiciary Acts have noted that the federal courts have “original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the states” over “any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction,” but then goes on, “saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled” this is referred to as the “Savings to Suitors” clause. Under Savings to Suitors, maritime cases are federal cases, subject to federal maritime law, and within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. However, those maritime cases that present issues traditionally within state common law jurisdiction, in other words contract and tort cases, can still be tried in state courts. Despite that compromise, the scope of maritime law remains in tension with the scope of state and other federal laws. Maritime law continues to adapt to changing commercial practices and demands, such as those posed by inter-modal shipping, mixed sale, purchase, and delivery contracts, amphibious vehicles, and changing financial, social and employment standards. However, the traditional rule of thumb remains generally true -matters that involve ships, or the movement of goods or people by water, will likely involve some aspect of maritime law. “Maritime law” is a body of law applicable to maritime commerce and ships. The key to understanding maritime law is to understand that it has developed to promote maritime commerce, which is matter of international concern and practice. As a consequence, while most maritime nations have their own maritime law, the principles of maritime law are mostly consistent among maritime nations, and decisions based on general maritime law principles are widely recognized around the world. Much of United States and international maritime law developed from English admiralty law as first applied by local English maritime courts and then the English High Court of Admiralty, a special court under the authority of the Lord High Admiral formed to deal with maritime-specific issues in 1339. Maritime law is a unique area of law that includes laws and regulations drawn from international conventions, federal legislation, agency regulations, and judicial precedents, comprising a substantial body of common law developed from ancient maritime sea codes to the present. As a consequence, finding maritime law can sometimes be a challenge. On the other hand, maritime law has traditionally sought to be uniform —that is, consistent not only between jurisdictions in the United States, but also consistent among nations.