What Is Maritime Law?

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Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a large and comprehensive body of law including international treaties, federal statutes, state statutes and common laws (which arose due to court decisions) regarding activity on the water. It encompasses commercial activities, contracts, workers’ rights, environmental regulations, injury and fatality claims and much more. It deals with activity on the ocean and seas, in local ports and on rivers running through the U.S.

Maritime Laws and Regulations

The U.S. has many maritime laws and regulations created, monitored and enforced by several federal agencies. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Maritime Commission and the Maritime Administration are some of the agencies that deal with various maritime issues.

Maritime laws and regulations may pertain to anyone in the marine industry, whether as a business owner, customer, worker or recreational guest. If you are on the water, whether you own a small fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico, navigate large vessels through ports, work on an offshore oil rig or enjoy cruise ships, then multiple maritime regulations apply to your employment, activities, workers’ compensation benefits and injury claims.

Maritime Law Examples

There are too many federal and state maritime laws to list. However, a few important federal statutes include:

  • U.S. Code Title 33: Navigation and Navigable Waters, including the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the Federal Water Pollution Safety Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Title 33 is comprehensive and defines rules and regulations for various navigable waters in the U.S., such as the Great Lakes. A number of the statutes deal with pollution regulations, healthy and safety on the water and workers rights after harmful or fatal accidents. 
  • 42 U.S. Code §9601-675, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act: CERCLA creates a "superfund," which is used to clean up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste locations, spills and other situations in which pollutants or contaminants are released into the environment. 
  • 43 U.S. Code §1301-56, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act: This act designates areas of submerged land around the U.S. that are considered U.S. territory, yet not controlled by individual states. 
  • U.S. Code Title 46: Shipping, including the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, which gave authority to the U.S. Coast Guard to create a boating safety program and address safety issues on the water. 
  • U.S. Code Title 46 Appendix: Shipping, including the Jones Act, the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. Many of these acts further define when federal admiralty courts have jurisdiction over certain accidents that occur at sea. Some of the statutes outline an injured person or surviving family's rights after an accident. 

What Is a Maritime Court?

The U.S. does not have one specific maritime court. Instead, the court in which a maritime case is heard depends on which court has jurisdiction. If an injured person’s right to sue arises from common law or state law, then he may take his case to a state or federal court that has jurisdiction. If the individual has a right to sue under a federal law, then his case falls under maritime or admiralty jurisdiction, and he must file it in the appropriate federal court.


  • Maritime law encompasses international, federal and state laws regarding government, commercial and private activity on water.