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An Overview on Admiralty and Maritime Law

Common scenarios that involve offenses on navigable waters

Admiralty and maritime law is a special area that covers offenses that happen on navigable waters. Ship 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.


U.S. federal district courts have jurisdiction over cases involving maritime and nautical issues and disputes. Courts use a combination of U.S. and international law to address legal issues that arise from incidents on navigable waters. This includes oceans, rivers and lakes.

Courts determine which country’s law to apply based on the flag the ship is flying. 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.

Common Legal Scenarios

Maritime cases can involve two or more ships, a ship captain and 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 were injured in an accident. These can look like personal injury cases or workers’ comp 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

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

  1. What does admiralty and maritime jurisdiction mean?
  2. What should I do if I was injured on a ship?
  3. What laws apply on international waters?
  4. What law applies if I was injured on a cruise?

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 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 maritime and admiralty 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.

Why Super Lawyers?

Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high-degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The patented selection process includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations. The objective is to create a credible, comprehensive and diverse listing of outstanding attorneys that can be used as a resource for attorneys and consumers searching for legal counsel. As Super Lawyers is intended to be used as an aid in selecting a lawyer, we limit the lawyer ratings to those who can be hired and retained by the public. You can learn more about the selection process here.

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