What Is Transportation & Maritime Law?

An area of law with a lot of moving parts

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 3, 2023

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Transportation law and maritime law are broad practice areas focused on legal matters related to cargo transport, commercial transportation, maritime operations, and transportation infrastructure. It is one of the most complex and vital areas of law. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports that trillions of dollars of goods are moved throughout the United States each year.

The information here is designed to provide a general overview of transportation & maritime law. If you have specific questions about a transportation or maritime law case, you should seek the legal services of an experienced attorney.

Transportation and Maritime Law – What You Need to Know

  • Transportation and maritime industries are highly regulated and complex areas that covers cargo transport, commercial transportation, maritime operations, and transportation infrastructure.
  • Legal issues include international trade and supply chains; dealing with regulatory admiralty bodies and port authorities; and regulating shippers, shipowners, and common carriers in the transportation industry who engage in any carriage of goods or people.
  • Transportation and maritime law are governed by a complex web of state, federal, and sometimes international laws and regulations.
  • All parties engaged in commercial transportation and maritime operations must be aware of the rights and responsibilities under the applicable law.

An Overview of the Most Common Issues in Transportation and Maritime Law

Transportation and maritime law involve a wide variety of different legal issues. It includes everything from obtaining the required licenses to engage in certain forms of transportation commerce to figuring out what to do after a severe accident. Here is an overview of some of the most common issues that arise in transportation and maritime law:

  • Insurance Requirements: State and federal regulations require transportation and maritime companies to obtain certain minimum mandatory liability insurance coverage based on the nature of their operations. For example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires cargo freight haulers engaged in interstate commerce to carry between $750,000 and $5,000,000 in liability, depending on the specific commodities being transported. A transportation lawyer can help companies understand and navigate commercial insurance requirements.
  • Commercial Trucking (Regulations): Commercial trucking is a highly regulated industry. State and federal laws are an issue for most commercial trucking operations. All companies engaged in the commercial trucking industry must have the proper legal structure in place to protect their interests. A transportation lawyer can help truck companies and other transportation companies navigate state and federal regulations.
  • Railroad Transportation: Rail still plays a critically important part in our overall transportation infrastructure. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reports that nearly 30 percent of national cargo is transported via rail. Several issues arise in rail transportation, including federal safety regulations, commercial disputes before the Surface Transportation Board (STB), and Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) claims.
  • Accident Claims (Personal Injury & Wrongful Death): All companies engaged in commercial transportation—from vehicle manufacturers to trucking companies—must uphold high standards of care. Public safety should always come first. When an accident does happen, immediate action must be taken. Anyone hurt in the crash requires immediate medical attention. A transportation attorney can help the parties with the personal injury claims process or wrongful death claims process.
  • Jones Act Claims (Injuries to Maritime Workers): Maritime commerce is exceedingly complex. There are federal rules and regulations that all maritime companies must comply with. Maritime workers (seamen) fall outside of traditional workers’ compensation coverage. Instead, their claims fall under a federal law called the Jones Act. Suppose a covered maritime worker is injured (or killed) aboard a vessel due to unseaworthiness. In that case, their employer could be legally liable for the full extent of their damages through a Jones Act claim. Other similar laws, including the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), may also be implicated if a maritime employee is injured while on the job.
  • Maritime Collisions and Other Incidents (Environmental): Maritime collisions, maritime accidents, and other maritime incidents could also lead to an environmental law claim. Companies working in ocean waters or other navigable waters could face legal liability for damage caused to the marine environment. These are highly complex cases, and these companies must retain an experienced maritime law attorney.
  • Maritime Contracts and Maritime Liens: Maritime commercial law is complicated. For several reasons, maritime contracts and maritime liens are specialized areas of transportation law. Indeed, these matters are generally governed by a federal statute called the Commercial Instruments and Maritime Liens Act (CIMLA). Parties in maritime commerce should understand their rights and duties under this federal statute. If you have any questions or concerns about the implications of the CIMLA, an experienced maritime transportation lawyer can help.
  • Cargo Claims: With trillions of dollars of cargo being transported across the United States each year, there will inevitably be some conflict. Disputes may arise over lost cargo, damaged goods, or other related matters. A cargo claim is effectively a type of legal action in which one party demands compensation for a carrier for losses related to misplaced cargo, damaged cargo, or unreasonably delayed cargo. Cargo claims are complicated. It is not always clear who bears the responsibility for a shipping issue. Transportation lawyers help parties protect their legal rights and financial interests in cargo claims.

Transportation Issues May Be Governed by Both Federal and State Law

Transportation and maritime law are governed by a complex web of state, federal, and sometimes even international rules and regulations. All parties engaged in commercial transportation and maritime operations must be aware of the rights and responsibilities under the applicable law. A transportation and maritime law attorney can assist clients with everything from obtaining the proper commercial licenses to navigating complex federal maritime laws.

A Proactive Approach is Crucial in Transportation and Maritime Law

In transportation and maritime law cases, parties should always be prepared to take proactive action to protect their interests. This starts with putting the right legal structure in place. For companies, the best way to handle a legal conflict is to prevent it from ever arising in the first place. Strong practices can reduce the risk of accidents, regulatory sanctions, cargo claims, and other types of transportation disputes. It is also imperative that you take a proactive approach when a transportation or maritime legal conflict does arise. You will put yourself in the best position to resolve the matter in an efficient, cost-effective, and all-around favorable manner.

Common Questions About Transportation Law & Maritime Law

You can set up a confidential consultation with a transportation and maritime lawyer. During your initial appointment, an attorney can help you better understand your rights, responsibilities, and legal options—but you need to know how to ask the right questions. Here are some of the most common questions that people ask a transportation and maritime law attorney

  1. How do I move forward with a transportation accident claim?
  2. Does my maritime injury case fall under the Jones Act?
  3. Are shippers bound to the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA)?
  4. What is the statute of limitations in my transportation law case?
  5. How do I move my cargo claim toward a favorable resolution?
  6. Do I need to notify an insurance company about the legal matter?
  7. How can a transportation and maritime law attorney help me secure the best outcome in federal court?
  8. Do I have any arbitration or settlement options, and should I be prepared for litigation?
  9. What are the next steps I need to take to protect my rights?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices transportation and maritime law.

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