The law of the sea is a unique and extensive body of law that encompasses contracts, torts, injuries and offenses related to maritime commerce or navigation. Maritime law also covers privately owned boats used by non-industry seafarers like recreational boats or family sailing vessels.
Its origin dates back to ancient times as a way to ensure fair trade practices, ship safety and the welfare of seamen who traveled between ports. Today, maritime laws still govern shipping accidents, cargo damage, seaman injuries and many other aspects of life at sea.
Many maritime laws are based on international conventions adopted by treaty or other means. Cases arising under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are heard by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany and those under other international treaties are heard by national courts or specialized arbitral tribunals.
Maritime law regulates the enforcement of contracts and commonly makes provision for damages to parties that have suffered loss or injury due to the breach of contract. It also addresses the principle of general average, which allows for the voluntary sacrifice of property to reduce the risk of further losses or damage to the vessel and its cargo.
The majority of maritime law cases are decided by federal courts, which have jurisdiction under the law of admiralty and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, state courts may also hear some admiralty actions, including proceedings to partition ownership of a vessel, petitions to limit a shipowner’s liability after a large accident, and suits to enforce maritime liens and mortgages on ships.