Maritime law encompasses the body of laws and rules related to shipping accidents or injuries to seamen or passengers, marine pollution, maritime contracts and insurance issues. Maritime law involves a wide variety of claims and requires the expertise of experienced maritime lawyers.
Historically, maritime law was developed by local courts on the basis of custom and local traditions. However, as maritime trade expanded and maritime accidents increased, a national system of law was needed to govern these activities. The first major effort to codify maritime law was in the 13th century, when codes developed for England, France, Flanders, and Prussia. These were followed in the 17th century by the Maritime Codes of Christian XI of Sweden and Louis XIV of France.
The law of admiralty evolved out of these earlier codes and practices. Today, the primary source for maritime law in most countries is the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This is a global agency that sets safety standards and enforces international laws. It also frames conventions and regulates registration, licensing, contracts, crimes, maritime insurance policies and civil matters (it does not, in general, enforce state criminal laws).
In the United States, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over certain cases, including actions seeking to partition ownership of ships, petitions to limit shipowners’ liability after large accidents, suits for enforcement of liens and mortgages on vessels, and some other claims. However, the “saving to suitors” clause permits parties to bring most maritime suits in either state or federal court.