Admiralty or maritime law is that body of law which applies to waterborne commerce and events which take place on the navigable waters, i.e., the high seas, territorial waters, harbors, rivers and inland waterways, including the Great Lakes. It is the law which governs vessels, navigation, seamen, the carriage of goods and passengers over water, marine insurance, maritime liens and salvage.
Admiralty Law: An Overview
Admiralty or maritime law is that body of law which applies to waterborne commerce and events
which take place on the navigable waters, i.e., the high seas, territorial waters, harbors, rivers and
inland waterways, including the Great Lakes. It is the law which governs vessels, navigation,
seamen, the carriage of goods and passengers over water, marine insurance, maritime liens and
salvage. It is generally, but not always, the province of the federal courts, by virtue of Article III
of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that the “judicial power” of the United States extends
“to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction”. It would be a mistake, however, to think
that the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty cases. With enactment of The
Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress created the federal district courts and assigned to them “original
cognizance of all civil cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors…the right
to a common law remedy where common law is competent to give it”. The “savings to suitors”
clause was inserted to allow a litigant the option, in some cases, to bring a maritime claim in
state court, with a right to a jury trial.
The legal traditions and principles which are the foundation of admiralty law in America trace
their origins, naturally, to England, where admiralty courts had existed for centuries prior to the
American Revolution. The admiralty courts in England were entirely separate from the common
law courts which adjudicated other civil and criminal matters, and developed in accord with their
own principles. English admiralty law traces its roots to the Rules of Oleron, first promulgated
in 1190 A.D., by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard I of England. In her travels to the
eastern Mediterranean during one of the early crusades, Eleanor is said to have become
acquainted with the Rhodian law which had governed commerce in that part of the world from as
early as the first century A.D. Upon her return from the crusades, Eleanor codified these legal
principles into what we know as the Rules of Oleron, and those principles became the basis for
maritime law in England. Admiralty law is among the oldest known bodies of law, and its
centuries old traditions and principles continue to exert their influence today. Indeed, among the
Rules of Oleron can be found the long recognized entitlement of a sick or injured seaman to
receive maintenance and cure, by which his employer provides medical care, food and lodging
until the seaman recovers to the maximum extent possible. That right survives to this day.
A federal court’s admiralty jurisdiction is not entirely without bounds when it comes to disputes
involving a vessel. The court’s power to adjudicate admiralty cases is limited to disputes
involving maritime contracts and maritime torts. Whether a particular contract is of the maritime
variety, and within the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, is not always easy to determine. Generally,
a contract is considered to be a maritime contract when it relates to a vessel and its commercial
operation, navigation or transport of cargo or passengers. Court decisions over the years
distinguishing maritime contracts from those that are not reveal some interesting distinctions.
For example, a charter party dispute, which relates to the lease of a vessel for a specified voyage
or period of time, is considered to be a maritime contract, and thus within admiralty jurisdiction.
However, a contract to sell a vessel is not a maritime contract. Another interesting distinction: a
contract to repair a vessel is maritime in nature, but a ship construction contract is not. Still
another example: the interpretation of a marine insurance policy is within admiralty jurisdiction;
a suit to recover unpaid premiums on that policy is not.