What Is General Maritime Law?

General maritime law, also referred to as admiralty law, is a body of legal principles and precedents that govern activities and disputes that occur on navigable waters. 

Rooted in centuries-old customs and practices of seafarers and merchants, maritime law has evolved based on court decisions and common law to address the complexities of modern maritime commerce, navigation, and recreation. General maritime law operates alongside, and sometimes in conjunction with, international conventions and domestic maritime statutes. While general maritime law is a product of judicial decisions and precedents set by admiralty courts, specific maritime statutes may be enacted by national legislatures.

Key components and areas covered by general maritime law include:

  • Personal injuries and wrongful death
  • Rules of navigation
  • Interactions between vessels
  • Rights and responsibilities of vessel owners and operators
  • Maritime liens and mortgages
  • Salvage and rescue of maritime vessels
  • Marine pollution
  • Cargo and contractual disputes

Seamen, offshore workers, maritime employers, shipowners, vessel operators, passengers, dock workers, and all others involved in or impacted by maritime work may be covered by general maritime law.

How General Maritime Law Protects Offshore Workers

One of the first ways that the U.S. government sought to protect maritime workers was through general maritime law. Before the Jones Act, the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Comp Act, and the Death on the High Seas Act, general maritime law established the rights of seamen. Based on the relationship between shipowners, maritime employers, and seamen, its basic provisions ensure that workers are given maintenance and cure. It also stipulates the employer's responsibility for providing workers with a safe work environment, whether it be a vessel, oil drilling platform, or jack-up rig. If they fail to provide a safe environment or fail to maintain seaworthy vessels, they could be liable.

Although general maritime law has been around for centuries, it continues to protect seamen today. 

Seaworthiness of a Vessel

A shipowner has a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel that is properly maintained, equipped, and staffed by a trained crew. If a seaman or crew member is injured or becomes ill as a result of a vessel's unseaworthiness, the owner is liable to the seaman for his damages and losses. 

Maintenance & Cure Benefits

A foundational principle of maritime law, "maintenance and cure" obligates an employer to provide an injured or ill seaman with medical care ("cure") and a daily stipend ("maintenance") until they reach maximum medical recovery. This obligation arises regardless of who was at fault for the injury or illness.

Wage Protection

Seamen are entitled to be paid their earned wages promptly. If a shipowner withholds wages without sufficient cause, the seaman may be entitled to additional wages as a penalty.

Retaliation Protections

Seamen and offshore workers are protected from employer retaliation, such as demotion or termination of employment, when they report safety violations or exercise their rights under maritime law.

Protecting Your Rights Under General Maritime Law

General maritime law acknowledges the unique and perilous nature of maritime work. Its provisions aim to create a balance of responsibilities between employers and their crews, ensuring that those who work at sea are protected and compensated in the event of harm or injustice.

At Arnold & Itkin, we have helped after every major maritime disaster in the last 20 years. When the El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin, we represented three widows who lost their husbands. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, we represented over one-third of the crew. In these and countless other maritime cases, we were successful in finding answers and recovering life-changing verdicts and settlements for our clients. 

We are committed to seeing that injured and ill maritime workers receive the maximum protections and benefits to which they're entitled under general maritime law and all other applicable laws. No matter what.

Our track record speaks for itself, and our experience makes all the difference. To find out more, contact our firm for a free consultation.

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