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A Primer on Maritime Law

Florida has the most coastline out of any state in the contiguous United States, with nearly 8,500 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Most Florida residents have likely heard the term “maritime law” or “admiralty law,” and many correctly assume that this area of law has to do with the issues that arise on the navigable waters of the United States. However, maritime law is a unique and esoteric area of the law that only a select few partitioners, attorneys who regularly specialize in the field of maritime law, truly understand. This post will explain a few of the basics of maritime law.

First, maritime law and admiralty law are interchangeable terms that refer to the body of law that governs most legal issues that arise from or relate to marine casualties, including personal injury claims,  on the navigable waters or a vessel in navigation.  A general misnomer is that all maritime law claims must be brought in Federal Court.  This not the case.  Under the Savings to Suitors clause, a personal injury plaintiff  – say for example a Jones Act seaman or a cruise ship passenger can elect to bring suit in State Court, plead the clam is governed by maritime law and request a jury. Therefore, state and federal courts share concurrent jurisdiction to hear certain maritime claims, while other must be filed in federal court.  The option of suing in state court has been happening less and less these for several years now at least with regard to claims brought by cruise ship passengers and Jones Act seaman employed aboard cruise ships.  Why?

Firstly, Cruise Lines for sometime now have included within their ticket contract a “forum selection clause.”  This clause mandates that if you sue the Cruise Line you must do so in the location and particular court selected by the Cruise Lines.  In the case of Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, these Cruise Lines have designated suit must be filed in the Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida.  Secondly, Jones Act Seaman for many, many years could sue in State Court under the Savings to Suitor’s clause, mentioned above.  Cruise Lines seeking to deprive the seaman of a jury trial have for years now inserted a mandatory arbitration clause into the crew member’s employment contract.  The arbitration provision deprives the crew member of a right to a jury trial which he previously enjoyed un the Savings to Suitor’s clause.

There are, however, certain types of purely maritime claims that must be filed in Federal court.  For example, a shipowner’s claim for exoneration from or limitation of liability which will be discussed in greater detail in another post.  Suffice it to say that following a marine casualty, including personal injury or wrongful death, a shipowner can race to the appropriate court house and actually bring suit to limit its liability to the “post casualty value of the vessel.”  Read that again, to the “post casualty value of the vessel” assuming the shipowner can meet certain criteria.  This can be an extremely valuable tool t0 devalue or limit the value of any claim say in the case a multi-million dollar yacht having little to no value after a sinking.  The vessel could be a cruise ship, mega yacht, sport fishing vessel and even as small as a jet ski /Waverunner, or as they are often called personal watercraft (“PWC”).

Maritime law is unique in that it is very broadly focuses on encompasses all types of maritime related claims. For example, the following are all claims that more often than not fall under maritime law:

  • Violations involving “The Rules of the Road” or navigational errors committed by any type of vessel and resulting in a marine casualty, including boat collisions
  • Piracy and other types of criminal activity taking place on the water
  • Breach-of-contract and fraud claims if involving a vessel that was in navigation, and not removed from navigation, e.g., in dry-dock
  • Pollution and environmental claims
  • In Rem claims brought against a vessel itself, which may only be brought in Federal Court
  • Personal injury and wrongful death cases involving cruise ship passengers, yacht guests, crew members and seaman aboard any type of vessel
  • Employment law issues pertaining to ship owners, transport companies and crew members discharge in a U.S. port without receiving all pay due under an contract
  • And surprisingly, even claims of injury or death to passengers aboard airboats in the Florida everglades if the casualty occurred on a navigable waterway

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, as there are many other types of claims that can arise under maritime law. Essentially, maritime law is implicated when each of the three elements are met:

  • A ship or other vessel is involved
  • The incident occurred on the navigable waters of the United States
  • Whether the incident “bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.”

The Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and all bodies of water that have direct or indirect access to the ocean are considered navigable waters. Importantly, the term includes the rivers and lakes that support commerce between different states. Thus, maritime law applies to any injuries that occur on sea-going vessels, cruise ships, yachts, ferries, tugs, barges, oil rigs, riverboats, pilot boats and fishing boats.

An important consideration for many who have been injured on a commercial vessel is whether a choice-of-law provision applies. Choice-of-law provisions are included in contracts by cruise companies and other businesses with the specific purpose of requiring particular law that the drafter receives as favorable to its/his commercial interests.

Have You Been Injured in a Cruise Ship Accident?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured while traveling as a passenger on a cruise ship, the dedicated maritime lawyers at the Brais Law Firm can help. With over 65 years of combined trial experience, our team of skilled advocates handle all types of maritime cases. The firm’s founder, Attorney Keith Brais, is Board Certified in Maritime and Admiralty Law by the Florida State Bar, and has personally handled maritime personal injury and wrongful death cases for more than 25 years. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with an attorney specializing in the field of maritime law today, call 800-499-0551 today.

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