The term maritime law refers to a broad category of law that covers such issues as admiralty jurisdiction, personal injury and death, insurance, shipping and transportation, seaman’s wages, collisions, cargo claims, salvage rights, ship construction and repair, and other matters. Maritime law is distinct from other areas of law, including commercial law and criminal law. Congress has a general power to regulate maritime commerce under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and federal courts have original jurisdiction in admiralty cases. States also have power to regulate maritime commerce, pursuant to their state’s laws and the U.S. Constitution (Article I, SS 8, cl. 10).
The doctrine of unseaworthiness imposes a duty on ship owners to construct and equip their vessels properly, while the law of maintenance and cure requires that a shipowner pay the expenses of injured crew members. In some instances, a seamen’s right to recover maintenance and cure damages may be punitive in nature.
Admiralty jurisdiction extends to all public navigable waters that are the scene of maritime commerce, whether conducted between domestic or foreign commerce, interstate or intrastate. In United States v. Appalachian Power Co., 311 U.S. 377 (1940), it was held that the fact that a body of water is artificial presents no barrier to admiralty jurisdiction. In addition, a court’s admiralty jurisdiction is not confined to oceans and lakes but can extend to rivers, canals, and other bodies of water in which maritime activity takes place or has taken place in the past.