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.

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.

Did you know that your maritime lawyer must be conscious of maritime and common law when dealing with maritime disputes? Since law courts were first established in England, judges have relied on common law to settle maritime disputes. And this trend has continued to today. However, there is a lack of uniformity in how admiralty law courts apply maritime and common law doctrines to settle maritime disputes. Therefore, if you’re involved in a maritime dispute, you need to understand the difference between maritime and common law. This knowledge will help you better understand how applying these two law doctrines influences court rulings.
However, before we delve into the differences between maritime and common law, let’s first define these two law doctrines.

What Is Common Law?

Common law is a concept that originated in England during the early days of England’s law court. Common law is a body of unwritten laws established through court decisions.
In the early days of the English court, there were no law statutes that could make court decisions. Therefore, judges had to rely on their interpretation of justice to make decisions. However, they recorded their decisions to avoid inconsistency. These decisions resulted in a system of complex laws.
Common law is an ever-evolving field of law. There are situations where a court ruling will decide a precedent was incorrect and is no longer applicable. Therefore, legislatures were formed to establish and pass laws to avoid this inconsistency.
So, today common law is mainly applied in cases where the court can’t apply the existing statutes or rules of law to decide an outcome.

What Is Maritime Law?

Maritime law is a body of law that applies to shipping vessels and maritime trade and commerce. Maritime law was created to promote and protect the interests of maritime trade and commerce.
Before the development of maritime law, local English courts handled maritime disputes. However, sea traders became disgruntled with court decisions made by juries without maritime experience and who were easily influenced by local issues and politics. And to solve this problem, an admiralty court was established. After the United States gained independence from Britain, the United States admiralty courts were created under federal jurisdiction.
The United States has its maritime law. However, these laws consist of general maritime principles widely accepted by other countries engaging in maritime trade and commerce.
The scope of maritime law is large. It deals with issues related to private boats, disputes arising from maritime contracts, and crimes committed on American territorial waters or crimes committed on American vessels or against American citizens.

Is Maritime Law Similar To Admiralty Law?

You will often find people interchangeably using the terms, “maritime law” and “admiralty law.” However, it’s correct to refer to admiralty law as a subset of maritime law.
Admiralty law is best described as ‘maritime common law.’ Admiralty law has evolved from decisions made by judges who referred to civil law and common law to set up the standards used to solve maritime issues.
On the other hand, maritime law combines international agreements, admiralty law, and the federal government’s maritime statutes and regulations to address maritime disputes. The federal government created maritime statutes and regulations to address maritime issues such as maritime insurance and vessel mortgages that weren’t traditionally recognized by admiralty law.

What Are The Differences Between Maritime And Common Law?

The main difference between maritime and common is in the scope of the two laws. Maritime law deals with shipping vessels and maritime trade and commerce issues. In most cases, maritime law often deals with disputes involving the ownership of shipping vessels and their cargo. Common law is applicable in many legal fields, both on land and water.
The second difference is in the nature of maritime and common law. Maritime law comprises a mixture of admiralty law (maritime common law), law statutes passed by the federal government, and international agreements (since maritime trade and commerce involve many countries). Common law is a law system that relies on past court decisions to make a precedent that is used to try future cases with similar issues. The case’s outcome doesn’t rely on written laws or statutes when using common law.
Another difference between maritime and common law is how the cases are tried. Common law requires the presence of a jury to make an impartial verdict. However, maritime law requires admiralty law courts to try maritime cases without the presence of a jury.
In maritime law, it’s common for shipping vessels to receive the status of ‘legal persons.’ In contrast, the common law treats shipping vessels as inanimate objects.

What Are The Type Of Issues Tried In Admiralty Law Courts?

Now that we’ve explored the definition and differences between maritime and common law, you need to understand the type of court cases tried in admiralty law courts. Admiralty law courts preside over maritime issues related to contracts, injuries, torts, and crimes. The list below includes some of the cases you’ll commonly find on trial in admiralty law courts.

  • Criminal activity related to piracy
  • Vessel accidents where passenger or cargo ships suffer damages
  • Violating contract agreements or engaging in fraud
  • Wrongful deaths or injuries on shipping vessels
  • Violation of labor laws by shipowners
  • Environmental pollution from leakages of hazardous cargo
  • Conspiracy to conceal or falsify documentation

As a business owner in maritime trade and commerce, you need to understand the legal matters affecting your industry. So, you have to research the different laws and regulations affecting your business thoroughly. Suppose you don’t have the time to research maritime laws. In that case, you can seek professional help by consulting an experienced maritime lawyer. Only a lawyer with decades of experience can help you deal with the complexity of maritime law.
If you have any further questions about maritime law or need professional help with a maritime dispute, visit our website via this link and schedule a consultation.

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