An Overview on Admiralty and Maritime Law

Common scenarios that involve offenses on navigable waters

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 1, 2023

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Admiralty and maritime law is a broad legal area covering maritime commerce, shipping, and offenses that happen on navigable waters. Shipowners, captains, and crew members should be aware of how this area of law works, but it doesn’t affect only people who work on ships. Anyone who spends time on lakes or rivers can find themselves involved in a maritime case.

The following overview will give you a look at common scenarios that involve maritime law. If you think you might have a case, you may want to consider speaking with a lawyer who can help you understand how to bring a case that can involve U.S. and international law.


Under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has given U.S. federal district courts original jurisdiction over cases involving maritime matters and nautical issues and disputes (28 U.S.C. § 1333). Courts with admiralty jurisdiction use a combination of U.S. law and international law to address legal issues that arise from incidents on navigable waters. This includes oceans, rivers and lakes.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the terms “admiralty law” and “maritime law” are often used interchangeably, but a distinction can be drawn between them: admiralty law defines the scope of admiralty courts’ jurisdiction, whereas maritime law is the substantive body of law that admiralty courts use to decide cases. Like the common law, general maritime law consists of the cases that admiralty courts have decided.

Admiralty courts determine which country’s law to apply based on the flag the ship is flying. For example, a ship flying the American flag in Japanese territorial waters is subject to U.S. admiralty laws; a ship flying the Japanese flag in American territorial waters is subject to Japanese admiralty laws. A ship’s crew cannot fly just any flag; there must be some connection between the ship or crew and the country whose law is being applied. Sometimes American courts will reject jurisdiction over maritime cases when they would need to apply another country’s law.

Maritime cases can involve two or more ships, a ship captain, the obligations to workers or passengers, or the rights of crew members. Because this area of law can include anything that happens on navigable waters, it could conceivably include every area of law. That said, there are some scenarios that are more common than others.

  • Legal cases can arise from commercial accidents. These might take the form of personal injury cases if crew members or passengers on a cruise ship were injured in an accident. These can be personal injury, wrongful death, or workers’ compensation cases, but they may be complicated by international laws or U.S. treaties.
  • These cases can also arise from accidents that result in property damage or hazardous chemical spills. Again, these cases can involve international law or the laws of other counties, depending on who else is involved in the accident or where the chemical spill happened.
  • Maritime cases can also involve towage contracts, which is an agreement where one vessel is hired to move another. They can also involve liens and mortgages against ships or piracy and criminal activity.

Maritime cases are commonly handled in federal court, but if the case involves recreational boating accidents, you may also be able to bring your case in state court. There are advantages to choosing one venue over the other, so you may want to speak with a lawyer to decide where you should bring your case.

Common Questions for an Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.

  1. What is your experience with admiralty & maritime claims?
  2. What does admiralty & maritime jurisdiction mean?
  3. What should I do if I was injured on a cruise line?
  4. What is the statute of limitations for bringing an admiralty & maritime tort claim?
  5. What “laws of the sea” apply on international waters?
  6. Do state laws or federal laws govern my case?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire admiralty 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 admiralty & maritime law.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Nautical disputes and boating accidents can involve other areas of more generalized law, but the interplay of U.S. and international law will affect your case. A lawyer who understands this interplay and relevant statutes and treaties will be indispensable. Your lawyer can also help you gather necessary evidence, including medical documents and ship-related documents. They will also contact and interview potential witnesses.

A lawyer will be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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