When Does Maritime Law Apply?

Maritime law is the law of the sea.  It can apply to a whole host of different scenarios such as contracts for passage, salvage claims, injuries, etc.  For the purposes of this writing, I will limit my discussion of the applicability of maritime law to injury cases.

When people ask me, “when does maritime law apply?” they are essentially asking a question of jurisdiction.  Jurisdiction is a fancy legal term that essentially means a court’s power to decide a case or issue a decree.  Now throughout this piece, I will likely be interchanging maritime and admiralty.  While today the words are synonymous, originally admiralty was used in jurisdictional issues and maritime was used in issues with shipping and commerce.

In order for a court to hear a maritime case, the initial complaint must allege that admiralty law presides over the case.  Now for a history lesson on how the courts of this country developed the ability to hear maritime cases.  Originally, the US Constitution only allowed admiralty cases to be heard by the Supreme Court.  However, the Judiciary Act of 1789 allowed Congress to confer maritime jurisdiction to inferior US Federal Courts (like the Southern District of Florida where most cruise cases must be heard).  Another later piece of legislation allowed admiralty cases to be heard in state courts as well.

Admiralty law is old, REALLY old.  Admiralty laws and codes were some of the first governing rules to be written down.  The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans all had admiralty laws on their clay tablets.  As the US was founded by Great Britain, generally, we inherited the admiralty law at the time of the Revolution.  In England, admiralty law applied to anything that happened on the ocean and the tidal waters of its rivers (basically, if the river rose and sank with the tide, it was covered by admiralty).  However, once our young country and its Courts started to hear admiralty cases, we adapted new requirements to fit our country’s needs.

In 1857 a seminal US Supreme Court case was decided that switched our definition of admiralty jurisdiction.  In Jackson et al. v. Steamboat Magnolia, the Court eliminated the “tidal” requirement for jurisdiction and created a necessity for the water in which the accident occurred to support international and interstate commerce.  What this did was allow for the large rivers and lakes of this country to now be under admiralty jurisdiction.  For example, under the old English view, only a small portion of the Mississippi River (not to mention all the large rivers that feed into it) would have been under admiralty jurisdiction.  Over the years, this too has changed into a new standard.  The modern standard of maritime jurisdiction for accidents that occur on events on the high seas, territorial seas, and the inland waters of the US so long as they satisfy the requirement of being “navigable waters.”  Generally, inland water of the US is “navigable” if:

  1. It is capable of supporting maritime commerce;
  2. It runs through two states or empties into the sea; and
  3. It is presently sustaining maritime commerce.

Having a maritime law attorney is crucial if you have been injured on the water.  The attorneys at LaBovick Law Group have a team specifically dedicated to pursuing maritime injury cases.  We know the difference between the law on the water and the law on land.  If you have been injured on the water or need to know about boating insurance coverage, call today for a free case consultation.

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