maritime law vs common law

In contrast to Maritime law, common law refers to the “law of the land.” These laws are known as a “body of law” as they are primarily based on judicial precedents. Common law is interpreted by courts based on existing regulations, statutes, or written laws. When courts decide about different sets of facts and circumstances requiring interpretation of written laws, they create a precedent. The objective of precedent is to establish uniform rules that guide courts in understanding how laws are interpreted under varying circumstances, enabling them to rely on past decisions for guidance. These decisions, once passed down, can become binding for future courts.

Maritime law, also known as “Admiralty Law,” pertains to all operations occurring at sea. It governs the shipping industry, including inspections, insurance, and registration of ships, and addresses civil matters involving bystanders, passengers, and vessel owners. Maritime law applies in cases of accidents, injuries, or damage caused by or occurring on ships. It also covers maritime workers and ships or vessels regarding injuries onboard ships (or caused by ships). These laws include rules for compensating injured maritime workers, safety standards, geographic considerations, and types of work related to the shipping industry. The laws extend to people connected to the shipping industry, such as harbor workers, longshoremen, seamen, and anyone affected by ships. Lastly, maritime law also includes rules concerning privately owned boats, such as recreational boats used by non-industry seafarers.

What Makes Maritime Law Cases Different from Common Law Cases?

Understanding the differences between Maritime and Common Law is crucial, especially if you’re a maritime worker. Specific rules apply to different types of maritime workers. If you qualify as a Jones Act seaman – generally meaning you work on a vessel navigating waters – your employer must meet certain obligations in the event of an offshore injury. Injured Jones Act seamen are entitled to “maintenance and cure.”


“Maintenance” refers to the payment an employer must provide an injured seaman if the injury occurs while at sea. Maintenance payments should cover the worker’s room and board on the vessel, typically including food, lodging costs, and monthly bills while the worker is injured.


“Cure” relates to the medical expenses resulting from your injury. The employer is typically required to cover these expenses. Although employers may propose specific medical treatment, workers can choose their healthcare providers. Treatment covered under “cure” includes:

  • Medical examinations
  • Tests (Imaging, diagnostic testing, etc.)
  • Hospital services
  • Surgeries
  • Physical therapy
  • Prescription medication
  • Travel expenses associated with treatment
  • Emergency services
  • Home healthcare
  • Most other types of necessary treatment


Jurisdiction in Maritime/Admiralty cases can significantly differ from Common Law cases. Maritime Laws are federal laws, yet various state courts have interpreted them. The main factors determining which court should handle a maritime case are:

  • Location of the incident/accident
  • Location/citizenship of the parties
  • Contracts between maritime employers and employees


Contrary to common law, it’s generally more challenging for parties to obtain a jury trial in maritime cases. This is significant because jury trials are often advantageous to injured parties. Certain Maritime Laws do not permit jury trials. Moreover, companies and employees often privately contract to waive jury trials, opting instead for arbitration to resolve disputes.

Fortunately for seamen or maritime workers aboard vessels, the Jones Act allows jury trials in instances of personal injury occurring during employment as a seaman.

Accidents Occurring on Land

Under specific circumstances, Maritime Law can apply even to accidents that occur on land. Maritime Law may apply when land-based activities are essential to maritime commerce and closely linked to the shipping industry. These circumstances can include:

  • Loading and unloading of cargo: Even if they occur on land, injuries related to cargo loading or unloading between ships and land may fall under maritime law. These activities are considered critical parts of maritime commerce.
  • Shipbuilding and repair: As building or maintaining ships is closely tied to maritime commerce and requires specialized knowledge and skills, the construction and repair of ships can fall under the purview of maritime law.
  • Harbor Operations: Directing the movement of ships and cargo is deemed critical to the maritime industry. Thus, facilities such as harbors and ports are covered under maritime law.
  • Salvage and towage: The specialized knowledge, along with the risks and expenses involved in the salvage and towage of vessels, makes these activities fall under maritime law.

Notable Examples of Maritime Law Cases

Delovio v. Boit

In this 1815 case, a Massachusetts court faced whether an insurance policy insuring a vessel against losses at sea was subject to maritime or admiralty law. The court ultimately held that “the jurisdiction of admiralty … extended to all maritime contracts, whether executed at home or abroad, and to all torts, injuries, and offenses, on the high seas, and in ports, and havens, as far as the ebb and flow of the tide.”

Importantly, this decision solidified that the primary court for maritime cases is the federal district court in admiralty jurisdiction. Further, maritime jurisdiction can exist even when there is no maritime tort or maritime contract, such as when a maritime service is involved, like salvage.

Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen

This 1917 case helped to distinguish a workmen’s compensation statute from admiralty jurisdiction. Here, the New York Workmen’s Compensation Act applied to New York Harbor laborers. However, the Court found that the workmen’s compensation statute intruded on admiralty jurisdiction. Instead, the Court held that lawsuits stemming from laborers in the New York Harbor should be subject to admiralty law.

Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis

This 1995 case is key in determining a worker’s status as a “seaman.” Seaman status is crucial because seamen are granted the protections and benefits of the Jones Act as the above-mentioned maintenance and cure that injured workers receive.

This case laid out the test that courts now use to determine the status of an at-sea worker and held that an injured worker (plaintiff) is considered a Jones Act seaman when: (1) a plaintiff contributed to the function of, or helped accomplish the mission of, a vessel; (2) the plaintiff’s contribution was limited to a particular vessel or identifiable group of vessels; (3) the plaintiff’s contribution was substantial in terms of its (a) duration or (b) nature; and (4) the course of the plaintiff’s employment regularly exposed the plaintiff to the hazards of the sea.

R.M.S. Titanic v. Haver

This 1999 case determined whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction over the salvage rights to the wreckage of the Titanic, which lies in international waters. The court outlined that it had jurisdiction over the Titanic and that an injunction to prevent non-owners from salvage operations was valid. The court essentially has the power to enjoin “the whole world” against interfering with salvage operations for the Titanic.

The court also outlined the requirements for salvage, holding that a salvor is able to obtain liens on property salvaged from the wreckage and hold them for payment by the owner if: (1) the salvor rendered aid to a distressed ship or its cargo in navigable waters; (2) the service was voluntarily rendered without a preexisting obligation/contract; (3) the service was useful by effecting salvage; and (4) the salvage must protect the property.

Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker

This 2008 case involved punitive damages awards to Exxon Valdez oil spill victims. Just as oilfield workers are given legal protections in case of wrongful injury or death, victims of oil spills are also eligible for compensation when they occur. After a jury calculated compensatory damages at $287 million and punitive damages at $5 billion, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the punitive damages award should be reduced to $500 million.

Determining if Maritime Law Applies in Your Case

Depending on the circumstances of your accident or injury, it can be challenging to determine if and how maritime law will apply to your case. Maritime law can be highly complex and difficult to understand. You may achieve a better result in your case by working with an experienced maritime injury lawyer at Morrow & Sheppard LLP.

Call us today for a free, confidential consultation on your case to better understand your options and get the best results.

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a specialized legal framework that governs activities and disputes on the high seas, navigable waters, and related matters. It encompasses regulations for shipping, navigation, marine commerce, and maritime accidents. Maritime law ensures the proper conduct of individuals and organizations operating in marine environments while addressing issues such as shipping contracts, maritime injuries, and environmental protection.

The United States Constitution grants authority to the federal courts to exercise admiralty jurisdiction since maritime suits often involve questions of national importance that concern commerce, international relations, and foreign citizen rights.

Typically, admiralty jurisdiction covers cases where the claim arises from an accident on the navigable waters of the United States and involves maritime commerce.

Admiralty jurisdiction also covers contracts concerning “the navigation, business or commerce of the sea,” and crimes committed on the high seas against a US vessel or a US citizen.  

Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court has held admiralty jurisdiction is not limited to cases involving commercial vessels.

Simply put, accidents involving privately owned boats on navigable waters can be brought in admiralty courts, even if the boat was only used for a fun day trip with family and friends. 

Other laws apply in cases involving longshoremen, stevedores, and harbor workers, which you can read about in our post: Two Powerful Remedies for Injured Longshoremen and Harbor Workers.

A court has exclusive jurisdiction over a claim if it has the power to hear the claim to the exclusion of all other courts. Federal courts have exclusive original jurisdiction of all civil cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, but individuals do not have to bring maritime cases in federal courts. 

Long ago, Congress issued the Judiciary Act of 1789 which gave state courts concurrent jurisdiction (meaning that a case can be brought in more than one court) to hear most types of admiralty actions as long as there is a remedy available under the common law. 

In other words, state courts can hear maritime cases as long as the state court is capable of granting some relief to the parties that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to in the federal court system.

Characteristically, cases normally brought in state courts instead of federal courts are ones that involve tort actions or where a state court can get personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

There are a few types of admiralty claims that a federal court has exclusive jurisdiction over and must hear, including the enforcement of a maritime lien, foreclosure on a preferred ship mortgage, limitation of the vessel owner’s liability, any proceeding where the ship itself is being sued (in rem proceeding), and maritime suits against the government.

It is the choice of the parties to bring their case in state or federal courts. This choice is an important one because the parties may have different or more favorable rights under federal maritime law than they would have under state law or vice versa.  When a case is brought in state court, the court must apply substantive federal law and state procedural law

This rule ensures that federal maritime laws govern all maritime cases but allow the states to hear maritime cases based on their own procedures and common law. This distinction is important because in many respects federal admiralty law differs from state law.  

Possibly the most critical difference between maritime law and common law courts is that admiralty judges only apply general maritime law and conduct trials without juries.

For cases involving maritime law, such as those involving an offshore injury, it is important to find a lawyer who understands the intricacies of this complex area of law.

The Houston maritime injury lawyers at Armstrong Lee & Baker LLP are well-versed in the ins and outs of the laws that apply in maritime cases.

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