At some point when exploring their rights after being injured at sea, most people wind up asking the question, “What is general maritime law?” in some form or another. Maritime law is a body of law instituted over time via common law and precedents set in other cases, making maritime law unlike most other codified state and federal laws.
For this reason and others, general maritime law is one of the most complex areas of law to navigate. That’s one reason the renowned attorneys at Mithoff Law—some of the most respected and best maritime lawyers in Houston—created this overview of the personal injury aspects of general maritime law. Read on to learn more about general maritime law and how it pertains to your personal injury case.
Already know that your case involves a particular aspect of maritime law? The following pages might be useful to you:
- Houston Offshore Accident Attorney
- Houston Jones Act Attorney
- Houston Oil Rig Accident Attorney
- Houston Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Attorney
FAQs pertaining to the bigger question, “What is general maritime law?”
Before we delve into the nitty gritty of answering the question, “What is maritime law?” let’s address some of the smaller frequently asked questions.
What is the difference between admiralty and maritime law, if any?
In modern times, the terms admiralty law and maritime law are commonly used interchangeably to refer to a body of law governing a broad range of rights and duties of those who conduct commerce upon and work upon navigable waters.
Historically, however, admiralty law referred to a distinct judicial court that handled litigation regarding contract and personal injury cases of the sea. Such courts existed in the United Kingdom as early as the 1300s, and were a feature of jurisprudence in what is now the United States from early colonial times.
Eventually, admiralty law extended to handle contract and personal injury cases in all waters used for commercial navigation, not just the sea. Part of this expansion involved the inclusion of what were then called “maritime laws,” laws regarding the dangerous conditions that come with working at sea.
Over time, the two types of law blended, and the field of law is commonly referred to in the U.S. today as admiralty and maritime law.
What is the Law of the Sea?
Where general maritime law is a body of law dedicated to cases involving private persons, companies, and organizations, the Law of the Sea is a body of law dedicated to cases involving public issues, including environmental protection, pollution, sea mineral claims, protection of below-sea archeological/heritage sites, establishing sea boundaries, etc.
While the Law of the Sea is comprised of many international nautical laws, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 set down a Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) document that became effective in 1994 and has broadly become accepted as international law.
General maritime law and personal injury cases
General maritime law covers a broad swath of maritime legal affairs. These matters can include maritime mortgages and liens, marine insurance, the salvage of goods from sunken ships (marine salvage), the transportation of goods and people, marine commerce, and seafarer’s rights.
It is this last subject — seafarer’s rights — that is the subject of this blog, and a common area of practice for Mithoff Law. What are the legal precedents for when someone, either a seaman or a passenger, gets injured or killed at sea? Because general maritime law is made up of many different treaties and other sources of law, the answer to this question is not always straightforward.
To help keep things straight, let’s break down the different types of protection afforded passengers and seamen by the different acts you may encounter and the different types of protections offered.
Important acts in general maritime law:
- The Jones Act: The Jones Act, also known as the Maritime Marine Act of 1920, provides the right to claim damages to seamen injured or killed in the course of their employment aboard a sea vessel. Not all seamen qualify as Jones Act seamen, and the rights to claims it bestows upon seamen are not available to guest passengers or volunteers. For more information regarding the Jones Act, check out our article What is the Jones Act in Maritime Law?
- Death on the High Seas Act: The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) provides the right to file for damages to the families of passengers and workers (not covered under the Jones Act) who are killed outside of the three-mile territorial coast of the United States. Both passengers and seamen must typically prove that the boat owner’s or company’s negligence contributed to the death.
- Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act: The Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) covers both offshore and maritime occupations, including harbor workers, longshoremen, shipbuilders, ship repairers. Extensions of the LHWCA, including the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), cover additional types of maritime workers such as oil rig employees.
- Limitation of Liability Act: The Limitation of Liability Act entitles ship and company owners to limit their liability if they were unaware of the unseaworthiness of a vessel that caused an injury, death, loss of cargo, etc. Originally written to protect ship owners in the mid-19th century, when marine occupations were even riskier than they are today, the modern use of the act to protect corporations has earned it a controversial reputation.
Situations involving maritime injury or wrongful death not covered in the above acts, including the death of passengers within the three-mile territorial coast of the United States, are frequently covered by general maritime law.
Other types of claims in general maritime law
- Maintenance and cure benefits: Maintenance and cure benefits are available to employees who were injured or grew ill while in the service of a vessel, either on-land or at sea. Maintenance refers to income supplement and costs of living expenditures while the employee recovers. Cure refers to necessary medical needs, including surgery, medication, and emergency care. It is prohibited to withhold these benefits, and the seaman does not need to prove negligence in order to receive these benefits. Maintenance and cure benefits end when the crew member reaches “maximal medical improvement” (MMI).
- Claims of negligence within maritime law: Like in other service areas (such as the medical industry), ship owners and ship companies owe their passengers a duty of reasonable care. Should a passenger be injured or killed due to a failure to provide this duty of care, a passenger or their surviving family may file a suit. However, unlike a crew member covered by maintenance and cure benefits, passengers and non-seamen must typically prove that the shipowner/company was negligent and that this negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Claims of unseaworthiness: Seamen covered by the Jones Act may also make unseaworthiness claims for injuries that are caused by dangerous or unsafe conditions of their vessel. These conditions can range from damaged equipment to violent crew members. Generally, it is not required to prove negligence in order to make a claim of unseaworthiness.
It is notable that only a few of the acts and laws mentioned here make provisions for passengers. The legal vulnerability of passengers aboard cruise ships has been recognized, and continued efforts are being made to pass a Cruise Passenger Protection Act.
Have questions about general maritime law and your case? Call Mithoff Law.
The principles of maritime law, its multiple treatises and statutes, and its many overlapping laws leaves many clients wondering, “Just what is general maritime law?” If you or a loved one was recently injured aboard a vessel, an experienced maritime injury lawyer at Mithoff Law can only help you navigate this complex area of the law and investigate your accident so that you can pursue the best possible outcome for your claim.
We have decades of experience handling maritime and offshore personal injury cases. Call us today at 713-654-1122 to meet with Mithoff Law’s admiralty and maritime attorneys and learn about your options.
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