What is the basis of judge-made Maritime Law in the United States? 

What is the basis of judge-made Maritime Law in the United States?

Judges in traditional maritime cases are charged to find and apply the general maritime law in their cases.

The general maritime law is the epitome of a federal common law, based on precedents from other maritime courts and authoritative statements of law such as the restatements of law developed by the American Law Institute.

Judges may also look to the way in which similar matters are handled in the maritime courts of other nations, to the historical treatment of such issues in the ancient or medieval sea codes, and to the corresponding state’s laws or related statutes.

Basis of judge-made Maritime Law in the US

Judge-made maritime law in the United States, also known as maritime common law, is based on the general principles of common law, case law precedents, and the historical practices and customs of the maritime industry. It’s a subset of federal common law, a body of law developed by judges in federal courts over time through decisions in individual cases.

Here are some key points about the basis of judge-made maritime law in the US:

  1. Common Law Principles: Like other forms of common law, judge-made maritime law is based on the idea of stare decisis, or “let the decision stand.” This means that courts look to past decisions (precedents) when making rulings. If a precedent is relevant to a case, it will generally be followed.
  2. Case Law Precedents: These are previous court decisions that are used as examples or guidelines for future cases. When a maritime case is decided, the reasoning and rules used by the judges become part of the body of maritime law. Future courts then use these precedents to help decide similar cases.
  3. Maritime Customs and Practices: Judge-made maritime law also takes into account the customs and practices of the maritime industry. This is because the unique aspects of maritime activities often require specialized legal rules. These customs and practices can influence the development of maritime law and can become part of the law if consistently followed over time.
  4. International Law and Treaties: Maritime law often deals with issues that cross national boundaries, such as shipping and international trade. Therefore, international law and treaties can also influence the development of judge-made maritime law in the US.
  5. Federal Statutes: While judge-made law forms a significant part of maritime law, there are also federal statutes that apply. In cases where a statute is relevant, it will take precedence over common law. Judges interpret and apply these statutes, and their interpretations become part of the body of judge-made maritime law.
  6. Constitutional Authority: The U.S. Constitution, in Article III, Section 2, gives federal courts jurisdiction over “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” This constitutional provision forms the fundamental basis for the development of judge-made maritime law in the US.

Judge-made maritime law in the United States is a complex system that has been developed over centuries. It balances the need for consistency and fairness (through the use of precedents and common law principles) with the need to adapt to the unique circumstances of the maritime industry (through the use of industry customs and practices).


Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, involves a complex mix of international agreements, statutes, and case law to govern the many issues and disputes that can arise in the maritime context. Let’s dive deeper into some of these areas:

  1. Uniformity Principle: One of the principles that guide the development of judge-made maritime law is the principle of uniformity. Given the international nature of maritime activities, having laws that are as consistent as possible from one jurisdiction to another is highly desirable. US courts often strive to make decisions that align with international maritime law to promote predictability and fairness in global maritime commerce.
  2. Legal Issues Covered: Judge-made maritime law in the United States covers a broad range of issues. These include contracts for maritime services (like shipping contracts), torts (injuries or wrongs) that occur at sea, issues related to maritime property (like ship mortgages), piracy, salvage operations, and more. Each of these areas has developed its own set of precedents and legal rules over time.
  3. Interaction with State Law: While maritime law is generally a federal matter, there are cases where state law can also be relevant. In some situations, federal maritime law may not provide a complete answer to a legal question, and courts may look to state law to fill in the gaps. However, courts will not use state law if it would disrupt the uniformity of maritime law.
  4. Role of the Supreme Court: The US Supreme Court plays a significant role in shaping judge-made maritime law. As the highest court in the land, its decisions are binding on all other courts. The Supreme Court’s maritime law rulings therefore set important precedents that guide the development of the law.
  5. Specialized Courts and Procedures: Maritime cases in the US are often handled by specialized federal courts and through specialized procedures. For example, a unique feature of maritime law is the concept of in rem jurisdiction, which allows a court to exercise jurisdiction over a piece of property (like a ship) involved in a dispute. This can involve unique procedures like ship arrest, where a ship is seized in order to secure a maritime claim.

Judge-made maritime law in the United States is a dynamic and complex system that continues to evolve over time. It draws on a range of sources, including past precedents, maritime customs, international law, and federal statutes, and it is shaped by a variety of courts and legal procedures. It is a specialized field of law that requires a deep understanding of both legal principles and the practical realities of maritime activities.


Let’s delve into some specific aspects of maritime law:

  1. Maritime Liens and Mortgages: These are legal claims against a ship, usually in connection with a debt or a service provided to the ship, like repairs, supplies, or towage. Maritime liens and mortgages can be enforced through a unique process called maritime foreclosure, which can involve the arrest and sale of the vessel by a court. The rules and procedures for maritime liens and mortgages are largely shaped by judge-made law, although they are also influenced by statutes and international conventions.
  2. Collision and Allision: Maritime law covers cases where ships collide with each other (collision) or where a ship collides with a stationary object like a dock or a bridge (allision). The rules for determining fault in these cases, and for apportioning damages, are largely based on judge-made law. For instance, there’s a presumption in maritime law that when a moving vessel hits a stationary object (an allision), the moving vessel is at fault.
  3. Salvage and Wreck Law: These are rules that apply when someone recovers a ship or cargo that was lost at sea (salvage), or when a shipwreck is found (wreck law). These rules, many of which are based on centuries-old customs, provide incentives for mariners to assist ships in distress and to recover lost property. For example, a successful salvor is generally entitled to a reward based on the value of the property saved.
  4. Maritime Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Claims: These are claims brought by seamen, passengers, or others who are injured or killed in maritime incidents. The rules for these claims are different from those in general tort law, reflecting the unique risks and conditions of maritime work and travel. For example, under the Jones Act, seamen have the right to sue their employers for injuries caused by negligence, a right that most workers do not have under general workers’ compensation laws.
  5. Maritime Environmental Law: This area of law deals with pollution and other environmental harm caused by ships. It has become increasingly important in recent years, with courts playing a major role in interpreting and enforcing laws like the Oil Pollution Act, which was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
  6. Piracy: Although piracy is less common today than in the past, it is still a concern in some parts of the world. Maritime law, including judge-made law, provides for the prosecution and punishment of pirates.
  7. Admiralty Procedure: Finally, maritime law includes special rules and procedures for handling maritime cases in court. These include rules for initiating a lawsuit, obtaining evidence, trying a case, and enforcing a judgment. Many of these rules are designed to accommodate the unique features of maritime disputes, such as the fact that ships are mobile and can move from one jurisdiction to another.

Judge-made maritime law in the United States is a broad and multifaceted field that touches on many aspects of life at sea. It is an evolving body of law that seeks to balance tradition and precedent with the need to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies.