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What is the Difference Between Admiralty Law and Maritime Law?

On behalf of Sayer Regan & Thayer of Sayer Regan & Thayer, LLP posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

By Peter Regan, Esq.
Sayer, Regan & Thayer, LLP

Admiralty law and maritime law essentially mean the same thing. A unique area of the law, admiralty and maritime law involves complex administrative, jurisdictional and procedural issues that often overlap with other areas of the law, such as business law (as it pertains to yacht and boat transactions) and personal injury law (as it pertains to boating accidents and at-sea injuries).

Both terms are used interchangeably, and may cover a wide variety of cases ranging from torts and contracts to maritime injuries and offences on navigable waters.

Historically, however, these terms meant different things. Admiralty law initially referred to those laws governing the Royal Navy and cases that involved nautical commerce and ships. The term “maritime” was used to describe the nature of the case, and any laws that applied to it.

Maritime law initially was put in place to address and fix the hazardous traveling and working conditions in offshore commercial undertakings. The earliest admiralty laws often took favor with ship owners and restricted workers’ rights. Conversely, maritime law took favor of seamen and recognized the dangerous working conditions and low wages they were subjected to.

The differences between the two terms have lost their significance and today they mean the same thing. While federal courts have jurisdiction over matters of admiralty and maritime law, sometimes, these cases can be handled by state courts.

Why Are Admiralty Laws in Place?

First and foremost, they are designed to protect workers who may be injured while performing their job duties. Three conditions have to be met in order for the case to be considered under maritime law and eligible for a claim:

• A vessel of some kind must be involved;
• The incident has to have occurred on navigable waters; and
• The incident has to have happened when the worker was engaging in job-related duties.

Unlike many other areas of the law, maritime law involves many jurisdictional issues that can be murky, complex and unclear, with clear-cut cases being the exception rather than the norm.

To clarify, a vessel is considered to be any of the following:

• Yacht
• Fishing boat
• Dredge
• Supply or cargo ship
• Tugboat
• Barge
• Crew boat
• Towboat
• Tanker
• Offshore oil rig

Navigable waters refer to all bodies of water that can be used for interstate or foreign commerce. Examples include the following:

• Oceans
• Lakes
• Rivers
• Bayous
• Harbours

Some common cases that may be filed in admiralty law include commercial accidents that result in damage to vessels or cargo, injuries to seamen, hazardous material spills, piracy and criminal activity, ship liens, wake damage, towage contracts, omissions and errors by owners of commercial vessels, employee wrongful death and/or injuries, contract violation and/or fraud, disputes concerning salvage awards, ship owners who fail to adhere to labor regulations, and recreational boating accidents taking place on navigable waters.

There are statutes of limitations involved in admiralty law claims. For instance, claims must be filed within three years under the Death on the High Sea Act or the Jones Act, while a one-year statute is in place under the Longshore Harbor and Workers’ Compensation Act as well as Cruise Line Passenger Claims.

Due to the complex nature of maritime and admiralty laws, along with the required statute of limitations that must be adhere to, it’s crucial to consult with an experienced and knowledgeable maritime and admiralty law attorney as soon as possible after an accident.

Contact Sayer, Regan & Thayer LLP for Admiralty or Maritime Law

The lawyers at Sayer, Regan and Thayer have been active within admiralty and maritime law for more than 25 years. Home to the sailing capital of the world and former home of America's Cup, we are uniquely positioned to help clients throughout Rhode Island, southeastern Massachusetts and globally thanks to our centrally-located offices in Newport RI. Our clients range from recreational boaters and vessel owners to marinas and commercial seamen.

Call us today for your free, no-obligation consultation and case review at 866-378-5836.

These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

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