History of Maritime Law

Maritime law, also called admiralty law, is the umbrella term for the laws that regulate navigation, commercial shipping, and related activities.

The legal protections available to injured seamen, other workers and passengers are based on a complex combination of state and federal government laws, as well as hundreds of years of "common law" derived from judicial decisions.

Maritime law also continues to evolve due to changing laws, new court decisions and new technologies, such as offshore drilling and wind farm activities.

The Ancient Roots of Maritime Law

Seaman and other maritime workers often work in dangerous conditions and are likely to be far from home, often for months or years at a time. Therefore, both ancient and modern maritime laws often included special protections for those who were injured or killed in the line of maritime work.

Many elements of current U.S. maritime law can be traced back to the earliest days of exploration and trade in the ancient Mediterranean. The oldest known maritime laws were created there between 900 and 300 BCE. As commerce and travel expanded, so did the need for laws governing maritime activity and the treatment of workers engaged in those activities.

Maritime laws have long described seamen as "wards of admiralty." The theory is that seamen and other maritime workers require special legal protection due to the heightened danger of injury, illness or death they face in their work.

For example, the European Laws of Oleron (created around 1150) said that shipowners are responsible for the living expenses and medical care of seamen who became ill or were injured in the course of their duties. This law of "maintenance and cure" is still included in current U.S. maritime law.

The maritime law doctrine of seaworthiness – a vessel owner's duty to provide seamen with a seaworthy vessel—is likewise based on these older traditions and laws.

Another unusual feature of U.S. maritime law is that it allows for the possibility of suing not only the vessel's owner but also, in some circumstances, suing the vessel itself. The potential to recover damages by suing a vessel also has its roots in much older maritime laws.

The Early Years of U.S. Maritime Law

The U.S. Founding Fathers recognized the importance of maritime law. Both the Constitution and early federal laws reference maritime activities. Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that the "judicial power shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." Therefore, many maritime law cases are subject to federal, rather than state, law. However, certain types of maritime cases may be heard in either state or federal court.

In general, personal injury or death claims are governed by federal maritime law if the claim:

  • involves a traditional maritime activity; and
  • takes place in "navigable" waters (a body of water that is able to be navigated and that connects interstate or international waterways).

Federal maritime law regarding personal injury and wrongful death often differ from state law. For example, many (though not all) federal maritime claims are tried before a judge, not before a jury.

Defining the Rights of Injured Seamen

Although seamen were historically viewed as "wards of admiralty" in need of special legal protection, the rights of injured seamen were not well-defined prior to the 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court provided some clarity with the Osceola decision in 1903. A seaman aboard the vessel Osceola was injured due to an allegedly negligent order from the ship's master. The seaman's lawsuit claimed that the ship's owners should be held financially responsible for his injuries.

The Supreme Court reviewed maritime law and custom stretching all the way back to the European Code of Oleron before making several important decisions, including:

  • If a seaman becomes sick or is injured while in service to the ship, the ship and the ship's owners must pay the seaman's living expenses (maintenance) and medical expenses (cure), as well as lost wages; or
  • A seaman may sue the ship and the ship's owner if the seaman's injury occurs due to the unseaworthy condition of the ship.

The Court also decided that a seaman could not sue a ship's owner for injuries that occurred due to the negligence of the ship's captain or crew. This left a large gap in the protections available to injured seamen. The gap wasn't addressed until almost 20 years later, with the passage of the Jones Act.

The Evolution of Seaman's Rights: the Jones Act, Seaworthiness and Maintenance and Cure

There are a number of different legal remedies available for the injury or death of a seaman under current maritime law.

The Jones Act and Injuries or Death of a Seaman Due to Negligence

In 1920, Congress passed the Jones Act. This federal law permits an injured seaman or certain surviving family members of a deceased seaman to sue employers for negligence that contributed to the seaman's injury or death. In contrast to the earlier Osceola decision, the Jones Act specifically allows for lawsuits to be filed based on the negligence of the ship's captain or fellow crew members.

Depending on the injury, damages that may be recovered by a Jones Act seaman or surviving family members include lost wages, medical expenses, pain and suffering, disfigurement and lost earning capacity. Jones Act claims are limited to pecuniary (financial) damages.

Negligence claims under the Jones Act require that the employer knew about and had the opportunity to correct the unsafe condition. Examples of employer negligence that may be covered by the Jones Act include (but are not limited to):

  • Failure to train crew members properly
  • Failure to provide proper equipment
  • Operating unsafely in dangerous weather conditions
  • Failure to follow safety rules
  • Grease or oil on a deck.

The Jones Act is different from most state laws governing workplace injuries in other important ways:

  • State workers' compensation laws usually do not allow employees to sue their employer for negligence.
  • A Jones Act seaman or surviving family members can potentially recover damages even if the seaman's own negligence contributed to the injury or death.
  • If the employer's negligence contributed in even a small way to the injury or death, the seaman or seaman's family may be able to recover damages under the Jones Act. This is a lower standard than the courts apply to most other injury or wrongful death cases, which require that negligence was the main cause of injury or death.

Unlike most other legal proceedings under federal maritime law, the Jones Act claims are entitled to a jury trial.

Whether someone can potentially sue for and recover damages under the Jones Act is dependent on whether they meet the Jones Act's definition of a "seaman." In general, a Jones Act seaman is a worker who:

  • Is employed on a vessel that is "in navigation" (operating in navigable waters);
  • Has a substantial employment connection to that vessel; and
  • Performs work that contributes to the function of the vessel or accomplishment of its mission.

Each of the components of the Jones Act seaman status have a specific legal definition, and all of these factors have been heavily litigated in court. An experienced maritime attorney can help you determine whether you may be able to recover damages for injury or death under the Jones Act.

Other Protections for Injured Seamen - Maintenance and Cure

Like the Jones Act, maintenance and cure is a special legal remedy available only to injured seamen. The definition of maintenance and cure has evolved since the 1903 Osceola decision that originally defined seamen's right to maintenance and cure under U.S. maritime law.

Today, unless the injury or illness resulted from a seaman's "willful misconduct," a seaman is usually entitled to maintenance and cure regardless of who was responsible for the injury. Therefore, a seaman may be able to receive payment for maintenance and cure even if the injury or illness resulted from his or her own negligence.

Injured seamen are entitled to maintenance and cure until "maximum cure" (no further possible medical improvement) is reached. They are also entitled to payment of wages they would have received.

If his or her employer is found to have willfully withheld maintenance and cure payments, a seaman may also be able to recover attorney's fees and additional damages, including punitive damages.

Other Protections for Injured Seaman – the Doctrine of Seaworthiness

Under maritime law, vessel owners have an "absolute duty" to provide seamen with a seaworthy vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended use.

A vessel need not be in danger of sinking to be considered "unseaworthy" under maritime law. Examples of unseaworthy conditions include such things as unsafe equipment, improperly stored cargo, inadequate railings or missing warning signs.

One key difference between unseaworthiness claims and negligence claims is that in an unseaworthiness case a shipowner does not need to be aware of an unsafe condition in order to be considered legally responsible for injury or death caused by that condition. In contrast, to make a claim that a shipowner's negligence contributed to injury or death, a seaman must prove that a shipowner had knowledge of and the opportunity to correct the dangerous condition.

It can be difficult to understand whether negligence or unseaworthiness (or both) contributed to a worker's injury or death. A knowledgeable maritime lawyer can help you determine whether an injury or death was due to negligence or unseaworthy conditions, and they can help you recover the appropriate compensation.

Expanding Legal Protections to Other Injured Maritime Workers

Congress passed the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) in 1927 to extend legal protections to other maritime workers who were not covered by the Jones Act. The LHWCA provides compensation benefits when non-seamen, such as shipyard and dock workers, are injured or killed on the job.

In order to make a claim under the LHWCA:

  • the worker must be involved in a traditional maritime occupation (such as working as a longshoreman or shipbreaker); and
  • the injury must occur on "navigable waters" or adjoining areas, such as piers, wharves or docks or other areas covered by the LHWCA.

The Jones Act and LHWCA are mutually exclusive. It is not possible to make claims as both a seaman under the Jones Act and a non-seaman under the LHWCA.

Extending LHWCA Protections for Injured Workers

In 1953, the LHWCA was extended to cover workers on the Outer Continental Shelf via the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). The OCSLA extends U.S. legal jurisdiction beyond U.S. "territorial waters" (three nautical miles offshore) to also include the Outer Continental Shelf areas along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and the coast of Alaska. Injured workers who were engaged in the exploration and development of natural resources in the Outer Continental Shelf are likely to be covered by the LHWCA.

The Defense Base Act extends LHWCA benefits to non-military personnel who work for private employers on U.S. military bases or for other military purposes.

Passenger Injuries and Death

Unlike the special rights accorded to seaman, vessel owners and operators are only required to exercise a "reasonable duty of care" towards passengers. Depending on where an injury or death occurs, passengers or surviving family members may be able to recover damages under state law, general maritime law or the Death on the High Seas Act.

Maritime Law and Wrongful Death

In 1920, Congress passed the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). DOHSA allows family members to potentially recover damages for the wrongful death of passengers, seamen or other workers that occur outside U.S. territorial waters, more than three nautical miles offshore.

Depending on the circumstances leading to death, surviving family members may be able to recover damages or other compensation under several other laws besides DOHSA:

  • Death of a seaman under the Jones Act;
  • Death of a seaman due to the unseaworthy condition of a vessel;
  • Death of a passenger or other non-seaman within the territorial waters of the United States under general maritime law; or
  • Death of a longshoreman or other harbor worker under the LHWCA, if it occurs on or around a ship in navigable waters or on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Get the Help You Need to Navigate Maritime Injury and Death Cases

If you or a family member have been injured, you need a team that can help you navigate the complex process ahead. Gilman & Bedigian will:

  • Research the facts and interview relevant witnesses related to the accident or injury;
  • Find and thoroughly analyze the evidence;
  • Help you understand the relevant maritime laws;
  • Produce a claim or complaint that helps you and your family get the fair compensation you deserve; and
  • Aggressively negotiate to help you get the best possible outcome.

We can serve as your representative both in and out of court, and we will fight for your legal rights and interests and get you the compensation you deserve. We don't get paid unless you do.

Contact Gilman & Bedigian Trial Attorneys online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation.

Let Us Help

If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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