Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a collection of regulations that covers all contracts, torts, offenses, and other legal disputes that occur on navigable waters.
Broadly speaking, maritime laws deal with:
- A ship owner’s obligations to their workers and passengers
- The rights of individuals working on vessels, and
- Interactions between two or more vessels
Historically, maritime law has focused chiefly on oceanic issues. However, it has expanded to cover almost all public bodies of water, including rivers and lakes in more recent times.
Maritime disputes are generally heard in federal admiralty courts. However, they may be adjudicated in a state court in some cases instead.
When Does Maritime Law Apply?
Generally speaking, maritime law applies whenever someone suffers an injury, loses their life, or incurs a financial loss due to an incident on a navigable body of water.
The most common situations in which these statutes may apply:
- Recreational boating accidents on rivers and lakes
- Commercial shipping accidents that result in injured seamen
- Commercial shipping accidents that result in damaged or destroyed cargo
- Piracy and other criminal activity on ocean-faring vessels
Maritime law may even apply if passengers lose their lives when a commercial airplane crashes at sea.
Individuals who sustain an injury or suffer a financial loss due to an accident on a river or at sea should consult with a skilled lawyer to figure out what (if any) maritime law might apply to their situation.
Examples of Maritime Laws
The most noteworthy and influential admiralty laws in the United States include:
The Jones Act
The Jones Act, otherwise known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal law that plays a sizeable role in regulating maritime commerce in the US. It requires all items shipped between US ports to be carried on ships owned and operated by US citizens or residents.
The Jones Act also extends the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) to seamen who sustain injuries or lose their lives due to negligent behavior on the part of their employer.
46 U.S. Code § 30104, a section of the Jones Act, says:
“A seaman injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.”
To qualify as a “seaman” under the Jones Act, an individual must spend more than 30 percent of their employment time on a vessel capable of moving and located on navigable waters.
Under the Jones Act, injured seamen can pursue compensation for damages such as:
- Medical expenses
- Rehabilitation costs
- Loss of earning capacity
- Mental anguish, and
- Loss of enjoyment of life
The family members of deceased seamen may also claim compensation for burial or cremation expenses and loss of inheritance by filing a wrongful death suit against the at-fault party.
The Death on the High Seas Act
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) is a federal statute that grants the family members of individuals who lose their lives due to negligence at sea the right to pursue compensation from the at-fault party.
46 U.S. Code § 30302, a section of the Death on the High Seas Act, states:
“When the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible.”
Under the Death on the High Seas Act, the following parties may claim compensation after the death of a maritime worker:
- Their parent
- Their spouse
- Their child, or
- Their dependent relative
If their claim is successful, these parties may recover compensation for damages such as:
- Loss of financial support
- Loss of inheritance
- Unpaid wages, and
- Burial expenses
In most cases, the statute of limitations for DOHSA cases is three years. However, this window may be reduced if the United States government is a defendant.
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) is a federal law that provides workers’ comp benefits to maritime employees, such as:
- Ship repairers
- Harbor workers, and
These individuals may claim LHWCA benefits if they sustain an injury while working on, near, or adjacent to the navigable waters of the United States. Damages caused by accidents on terminals, dry docks, wharves, and piers are generally covered by this act.
LHWCA benefits aren’t available to all maritime workers, however. The act expressly excludes the following people:
- Employees of the US government
- Employees of any state government
- Employees of any foreign government
- Employees who sustained an injury because of their own willful intention to harm themselves or others
- Seamen (who are instead covered by the Jones Act), and
- Employees who suffered an injury solely because of their intoxication
Workers who the LHWCA covers can seek the following benefits if they suffer an injury:
- Permanent Partial Disability: Available to people who have partial disabilities from which they are not expected to recover fully.
- Permanent Total Disability: Available to people that prevent them from working and from which they are not expected to recover fully.
- Temporary Partial Disability: Available to people who have partial disabilities from which they are expected to recover fully.
- Temporary Total Disability: Available to people who have disabilities from which they are expected to recover fully but are currently preventing them from working.
Family members of maritime workers who die on the job can also claim death benefits under the LHWCA.
Expert Houston Maritime Lawyers
Do you believe you may be eligible to recover compensation under the Jones Act, Death on the High Seas Act, or Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act? Please reach out to the team at Williams Hart & Boundas Boundas LLP as soon as possible. We have been practicing maritime law for years, and we are ready to help you fight for the money you deserve.