Maritime law is the body of law that handles all of the legal issues arising out of sea travel and commerce. This includes contracts, torts, offenses and injuries resulting from involvement in sea navigation or sea trade.
The term “maritime law” comes from the term “admiralty,” which once referred to the judicial courts in England and the early American colonies that handled legal matters related to shipping. Eventually, those two practices merged, and the terms maritime law and admiralty law came to mean one legal discipline.
A variety of claims are adjudicated under maritime law, including shipping accidents, oil spills, personal injury, employment discrimination, piracy and criminal activity. These cases can also involve issues such as salvage of a ship, towage contracts, liens and mortgages on a vessel, and insurance claims.
Cases of admiralty jurisdiction usually arise out of incidents that occur in United States navigable waters. These include collisions, injuries to a seaman or passenger on a vessel, and crimes committed on an American-flagged vessel in foreign ports, harbors or inland waterways.
Internationally, a number of conventions govern the law of the sea, which regulates territorial waters, sea lanes and ocean resources. These conventions include the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Maritime Organization’s SOLAS and SAR conventions, and other conventions signed by individual countries.
The United States and the European Union are signatories to several of these conventions. However, the rules of the various international conventions differ widely. Therefore, it is essential to apply these conventions in a flexible manner when resolving maritime disputes.