Maritime Law

Maritime law covers issues specific to navigable waterways, such as oceans and rivers. These issues might include salvage operations, shipwrecks and cruise ship operations. Often referred to as admiralty law, this legal area also includes issues involving worker safety, personal injury, marina and dock activities, international treaties, shipping and commerce.

Worker Safety

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act establishes rights for people who work on navigable U.S. waters or other water-based locations. For example, compensation for disability or death suffered by a civilian worker must be provided by the employer when the event occurs on:

  • Navigable U.S. waters
  • Dry docks
  • Piers, wharves or terminals
  • Marine railways
  • Any area used for water vessel activities


No coverage is provided, however, for an injury that was caused solely by the intoxication of the employee.

As is generally the case with state workers' compensation laws, workers who receive benefits under this law are in most cases prohibited from filing a separate lawsuit against the employer.

Maritime law additionally requires employers to maintain a seaworthy vessel with an adequate crew and essential safety equipment on board. Safe working conditions, such as access to acceptable food, are also required.

Rights of Passengers

People traveling in domestic and international waters also have certain legal protections when a problem arises. Passenger lawsuits often involve injuries resulting from:

  • Food poisoning
  • Slips and falls
  • Assault by either a crew member or another passenger

Operators of passenger vessels have the legal responsibility to maintain a safe environment. A passenger who is injured at sea will need to show, among other things, that the operator failed to exercise the requisite standard of care.

Salvage and Finds

Maritime issues often go well beyond worker and passenger rights. The law of salvage grants certain rights to ship operators and others who aid ships in trouble. Towing a broken ship, rescuing passengers or reclaiming a sunken ship typically entitle the party lending aid, referred to as the salvor, to a monetary reward. This is based on the premise that the salvor is at risk during the operation. After the salvor returns the ship or contents to its owner, a claim for compensation, usually 10 to 25 percent of the ship's value, may be made. If the owner refuses to pay, then the salvaged materials must be surrendered to a U.S. Marshal. A maritime lien could then be placed on the salvage.

Old shipwrecks will not necessarily be included under the law of salvage because their owners may not be looking for the ship. A person who discovers a shipwreck would be making a find. Before such a person assumes that the find can be claimed, a consultation with an attorney would be prudent. The discoverer might have a right to the shipwrecked materials if the original owner has given up on the wreck. However, the federal government is entitled to all shipwrecks in U.S. territorial waters under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. Territorial waters reach at least 3 miles off the coast.

Maritime cases are often complex and can include several nations, owners and operators. Accordingly, the representation of a maritime lawyer might be advisable for a worker or passenger who has been harmed while on navigable waterways.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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