Maritime Law vs. Common Law

May 18, 2023

Common law, in contrast to Maritime law, refers to the “law of the land.” These laws are known as a “body of law” as they are primarily based on judicial precedents. Common law is interpreted by courts based on existing regulations, statutes, or written laws. When courts make decisions about different sets of facts and circumstances requiring interpretation of written laws, they create precedent. The objective of precedent is to establish uniform rules that guide courts in understanding how laws are interpreted under varying circumstances, enabling them to rely on past decisions for guidance. These decisions, once passed down, can become binding for future courts.

Maritime law, also known as “Admiralty Law,” pertains to all operations occurring at sea. It governs the shipping industry, including inspections, insurance, and registration of ships, and addresses civil matters involving bystanders, passengers, and ship owners. Maritime law applies in cases of accidents, injuries, or damage caused by or occurring on ships. It also covers maritime workers and ships or vessels regarding injuries onboard ships (or caused by ships). These laws include rules for compensating injured maritime workers, safety standards, geographic considerations, and types of work related to the shipping industry. The laws extend to people connected to the shipping industry, such as harbor workers, longshoremen, seamen, and anyone affected by ships. Lastly, Maritime law also includes rules concerning privately owned boats, like recreational boats used by non-industry seafarers.

What Makes Maritime Law Cases Different from Common Law Cases?

Understanding the differences between Maritime and Common Law is crucial, especially if you’re a maritime worker. Specific rules apply to different types of maritime workers. If you qualify as a Jones Act seaman – generally meaning you work on a vessel navigating waters – your employer must meet certain obligations in the event of an offshore injury. Injured Jones Act seamen are entitled to “maintenance and cure.”


“Maintenance” refers to the payment an employer must provide an injured seaman if the injury occurs while at sea. Maintenance payments should cover the worker’s room and board on the vessel, typically including food, lodging costs, and monthly bills while the worker is injured.


“Cure” relates to the medical expenses resulting from your injury. The employer is typically required to cover these expenses. Although employers may propose specific medical treatment, workers have the right to choose their healthcare providers. Treatment covered under “cure” includes:

  • Medical examinations
  • Tests (Imaging, diagnostic testing, etc.)
  • Hospital services
  • Surgeries
  • Physical therapy
  • Prescription medication
  • Travel expenses associated with treatment
  • Emergency services
  • Home healthcare
  • Most other types of necessary treatment


Jurisdiction in Maritime/Admiralty cases can significantly differ from Common Law cases. Maritime Laws are federal laws, yet they have been interpreted by various state courts. The main factors determining which court should handle a maritime case are:

  • Location of the incident/accident
  • Location/citizenship of the parties
  • Contracts between maritime employers and employees


Contrary to common law, it’s generally more challenging for parties to obtain a jury trial in maritime cases. This is significant because jury trials are often seen as advantageous to injured parties. Certain Maritime Laws do not permit jury trials. Moreover, companies and employees often privately contract to waive jury trials, opting instead for arbitration to resolve disputes.

Fortunately for seamen or maritime workers aboard vessels, the Jones Act allows jury trials in instances of personal injury occurring during the course of employment as a seaman.

Accidents Occurring on Land

Under specific circumstances, Maritime Law can apply even to accidents that occur on land. Maritime Law may apply when land-based activities are essential to maritime commerce and closely linked to the shipping industry. These circumstances can include:

  • Loading and unloading of cargo: Even if they occur on land, injuries related to cargo loading or unloading between ships and land may fall under maritime law. These activities are considered critical parts of maritime commerce.
  • Shipbuilding and repair: As building or maintaining ships is closely tied to maritime commerce and requires specialized knowledge and skills, the construction and repair of ships can fall under the purview of maritime law.
  • Harbor Operations: Directing the movement of ships and cargo is deemed critical to the maritime industry. Thus, facilities such as harbors and ports are covered under maritime law.
  • Salvage and towage: The specialized knowledge, along with the risks and expenses involved in the salvage and towage of vessels, makes these activities fall under maritime law.

Notable Examples of Maritime Law Cases

Delovio v. Boit

In this 1815 case, a Massachusetts court was faced with the question of whether an insurance policy insuring a vessel against losses at sea was subject to maritime or admiralty law. The court ultimately held that “the jurisdiction of admiralty … extended to all maritime contracts, whether executed at home or abroad, and to all torts, injuries, and offences, on the high seas, and in ports, and havens, as far as the ebb and flow of the tide.”

Importantly, this decision solidified the notion that the primary court for Maritime cases is the federal district court sitting in admiralty jurisdiction. Further, maritime jurisdiction can exist even when there is no maritime tort or maritime contract, such as when a maritime service is involved, like salvage.

Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen

This 1917 case helped to distinguish a workmen’s compensation statute from admiralty jurisdiction. Here, the New York Workmen’s Compensation Act had applied to laborers in the New York Harbor. However, the Court found that the workmen’s compensation statute intruded on admiralty jurisdiction. Instead, the Court held that lawsuits stemming from laborers in the New York Harbor should be subject to admiralty law.

Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis

This 1995 case is the key case in determining a worker’s status as a “seaman.” Seaman status is crucial because seamen are granted the protections and benefits of the Jones Act, like the above-mentioned maintenance and cure that injured workers receive.

This case laid out the test that courts now use to determine the status of an at-sea worker, and held that an injured worker (plaintiff) is considered a Jones Act seaman when: (1) a plaintiff contributed to the function of, or helped accomplish the mission of, a vessel; (2) the plaintiff’s contribution was limited to a particular vessel or identifiable group of vessels; (3) the plaintiff’s contribution was substantial in terms of its (a) duration or (b) nature; and (4) the course of the plaintiff’s employment regularly exposed the plaintiff to the hazards of the sea.

R.M.S. Titanic v. Haver

This 1999 case determined whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction over the salvage rights to the wreckage of the Titanic, which lies in international waters. The court outlined that it indeed had jurisdiction over the Titanic and that an injunction to prevent non-owners from salvage operations was valid. The court essentially has the power to enjoin “the whole world” against interfering with salvage operations for the Titanic.

The court also outlined the requirements for salvage, holding that a salvor is able to obtain liens on property salvaged from the wreckage and hold them for payment by the owner if: (1) the salvor rendered aid to a distressed ship or its cargo in navigable waters; (2) the service was voluntarily rendered without a preexisting obligation/contract; (3) the service was useful by effecting salvage; and (4) the salvage must protect the property.

Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker

This 2008 case had to do with punitive damages awards to the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After a jury calculated compensatory damages at $287 million, and punitive damages at $5 billion, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the punitive damages award should be reduced to $500 million.

Determining if Maritime Law Applies in Your Case

Depending on the circumstances of your accident or injury, it can be challenging to determine if and how maritime law will apply to your case. Maritime law can be highly complex and difficult to understand. You may achieve a better result in your case by working with an experienced maritime injury lawyer at Morrow & Sheppard LLP.

Call us today for a free, confidential consultation on your case to better understand your options and get the best results.

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