The terms admiralty law and maritime law are used interchangeably to refer to a body of both substantive and procedural law that exclusively covers all disputes over contracts, torts, and other controversies that occur in connection with marine resources, ocean navigation, or marine commerce and shipping. This law applies to controversies involving all navigable waters of the United States – those American territorial waters, whether they are coastal oceans or inland waters, which are capable of carrying interstate or international commercial traffic.
Development of American Admiralty & Maritime Law
Maritime law developed first in countries on the Mediterranean Sea, where western ocean commerce began, and it spread across Europe, largely because of the Crusades. By the late 1700’s, Great Britain maintained Admiralty Courts, a completely autonomous civil court system for adjudicating the rather unique controversies of maritime law, separate from the system of common law courts, and the practice continued in the British colonies.
American colonists strongly disfavored the separate court system, particularly because violations of the British Stamp Acts by colonists were tried in admiralty courts, without a jury. Following the Revolutionary War, American admiralty and maritime law took its present form:
- Article 3, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1789 gave the Federal District Courts of the United States original jurisdiction to hear maritime controversies.
- Non-exclusive admiralty jurisdiction was specifically incorporated into the Judiciary Act of 1789, by which Congress enabled the court system created by the Constitution.
- Americans chose to vest maritime jurisdiction in the common courts, abandoning the separate court systems used by the British.
- When hearing a maritime case, U.S. courts are said to be “sitting in admiralty.”
U.S. Domestic Admiralty and Maritime Law
Federal court jurisdiction of admiralty cases is not exclusive. The statute creating jurisdiction (28 U.S.C. § 1333), leaves the states with concurrent jurisdiction to hear disputes that occur within state borders, “saving to suitors” (plaintiffs) the choice to sue in state court.
- Unlike Admiralty Courts, many state courts offer jury trials.
- State courts hearing admiralty cases are bound to apply federal substantive law of admiralty.
Within the U.S., Congress regulates admiralty and maritime law, as an exercise of the Commerce Power, to the exclusion of the individual states, with a few very minor exceptions. Federal agencies that are directly involved in regulating maritime issues include:
- U.S. Maritime Administration
- Federal Maritime Commission
- U.S. Department of Transportation
- U.S. Coast Guard
Many other federal agencies are also involved in regulating internal maritime issues. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority regulates a great deal of navigable water in the course of generating power for residential and industrial electricity, and the Army Corps of Engineers regulates waters while working to maintain channels to keep them physically navigable.
International Admiralty and Maritime Law
Outside the U.S., admiralty and maritime law is the subject of numerous treaties, along with agreements among nations known as international conventions. Prior to the advent of the United Nations, most international conventions came from private organizations. An example of a private international convention is the Hague Convention on International Bills of Lading. The United Nations has worked to improve uniformity of admiralty and maritime law:
- The UN stablished the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which has produced international conventions on subjects like safety at sea, collision regulations, pollution regulations, training of seamen, and rescues, just to name a few.
- The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea dealt with protection of marine life and protection of international boundaries.
Even with the UN’s activities, international admiralty law remains far from being centralized in its creation or enforcement. Instead, it is made up of literally thousands of treaties, conventions, bilateral agreements, international customs and local customs as varied as the nations that produce them.
Admiralty jurisdiction attaches to all vessels present within the Admiralty Court’s territorial jurisdiction, regardless of the vessel’s nationality or of the nationalities of the owner or passengers.
Where a dispute exists between two parties of differing nationalities, choice of law issues are complicated, as well. As a general rule:
- In a collision occurring in its own waters, an Admiralty Court will apply its own jurisdiction’s law.
- If the collision occurs in the waters of another nation, the court will apply that nation’s law.
- If a collision occurs on the high seas, a U.S. Admiralty Court will apply its own law.
- An exception to this rule arises where the vessels involved are under the same nation’s flag or where each one’s different flags have adopted the same international convention that addresses collisions; there, an Admiralty Court will apply the law of the flag or the law of the international convention.
In any event, a U.S. Court will substitute its own law for that of another nation, where the other nation’s applicable law is repugnant to the principles expressed in the U.S. Constitution. In the end, a U.S. Admiralty Court may decline to exercise jurisdiction at all where it finds that the controversy or the parties do not have significant contacts with the location of the Court, or the Court may take the case and then transfer it to a forum that has more significant contacts, under the doctrine of forum non conveniens.