The Long History of Maritime Law & How It Applies Today

Maritime laws are relevant to anyone who works on or travels across open water, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bering Sea and beyond. Maritime laws are some of the oldest in the world—many of them descend from rules created by shippers as early as the 6th century. This means that maritime laws are some of the longest-used laws in the history of civilization.

Today, maritime law is interchangeable with "admiralty law." Two terms exist because “admiralty law” was originally used by England and America for laws governing ocean-faring ships. Admiralty law covers all incidents that occur over any body of water. While the modernized word is maritime law, both terms are acceptable.

When Does Maritime Law Apply?

International maritime law states that any ship within 24 miles of any coastline must operate under the laws of the nearby country. So, if a ship's registration is in the United States and it violates Mexican law 20 miles off the coast of Mexico, the vessel would be subject to Mexican laws. However, if this same ship was 25 miles from the Mexican coast, any violations would fall under the jurisdiction of United States maritime code.

The Pillars of Maritime Law

Maintenance & Cure

Maintenance and cure is a centuries-old principle that requires employers to pay for a sailor's care if they are injured while working. This principle originates from a 12th-century law which required ship owners to pay for medical treatment at no cost to the seaman until they’ve reached “maximum medical cure.” This rule does not require injured individuals to prove their injuries were caused by negligence—their injuries must simply have occurred on the employer’s vessel. In addition to cure, vessel owners must cover an injured worker’s living expenses while they are recovering (also known as "maintenance.")

Passenger Injuries

Maritime law requires shipowners to take responsibility for passenger safety. Passengers who suffer injuries aboard a vessel may sue for damages as they would onshore. However, passengers must hire maritime attorneys who are familiar with admiralty law if they want to hold a vessel owner accountable.

Liens & Mortgages

Federal courts have jurisdiction over contract disputes that occur over open waters. So, if a seaman wants to file a wage dispute against their employer, they must do so in a federal court. A lien refers to the seizing of a ship if a ship owner does not fulfill their end of a contract.


If a ship recovers the property of another entity while at sea, the owner of the vessel is entitled to a salvage award. A contract salvage occurs when both parties agree to terms before the recovery of an item. Pure salvage occurs when there is no contract between the owner of an item and the party recovering the object. Notably, salvage awards do not apply to the rescuing of individuals. Instead, everyone on a vessel is expected to take every measure to save lives when necessary.

Jones Act Attorneys

In U.S. maritime law, there is no right to trial after a worker suffers an injury. There is one exception: the Jones Act. The Jones Act enables offshore workers to request a jury trial to sue their employers if an employer's negligence caused injury. The Jones Act applies in two venues: in U.S. waters and between all U.S. ports. This law requires that all ships transporting goods between United States ports are made in the United States, owned by American citizens, and operated by legal residents. Essentially, this act guarantees that most American offshore workers can pursue their employer for damages after suffering injuries caused by negligence. Similarly, Congress also passed the Death on the High Seas Act in 1920 to allow families of workers killed in international waters to pursue wrongful death damages against negligent employers or in instances where a ship is unseaworthy.

If you have questions about how a situation relates to maritime law, call Arnold & Itkin today at (888) 346-5024. Our firm has extensive experience helping seamen who have been injured offshore. Calling us about your injury entitles you to a free consultation about your legal and financial options, so call today!

Contact Us

Get a Completely Free Evaluation of Your Case

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • Please enter your email address.
    This isn't a valid email address.
  • Please enter your phone number.
    This isn't a valid phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.