A History of American Maritime Law

“I am indeed the master of the world, but the Law is the master of the sea. This matter must be decided by the maritime law of the Rhodians, provided that no law of ours opposes it.

  • Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (86-161 AD)

Maritime law has governed ships and navigation for 2,000 years. Although it is assumed that the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians had some form of basic maritime laws in place, there is no record of these. The first written record of maritime law is attributed to the Greek island of Rhodes and was written by Emperor Antoninus Pius during his reign from 138 to 161 AD. His lyrics, which are included above, can be found in the Digest (553 AD)

Today, maritime law is a combination of some of the oldest legal standards and new regulations designed to deal with changes as the industry has evolved. Individual nations have their own versions of maritime law, and 167 are members of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, a United Nations agreement that established international marine and maritime regulations.

As a young nation, the United States adopted much of its maritime law from England. The first maritime laws were introduced in the Americas in the 1600s with the establishment of Vice-Admiralty Courts in major seaports, but it was not until the Judicial Act of 1789 – after the American Revolution – that Federal district courts were granted jurisdiction over maritime cases. cases of law, with a “service” clause that allows state courts to hear certain cases.

Maintenance and treatment

One of the oldest and most important facets of maritime law relates to injuries and fatalities at sea. maritime workers always face in the performance of their duties. Maintenance and cure is one of those principles.

Similar to the idea of ​​workers’ compensation for workplace injuries that occur on land, maritime employers are legally responsible for providing maintenance and healing to seafarers who are injured in the line of duty. Maintenance covers basic living expenses (food and lodging) while an injured sailor is unable to work, and recovery covers the medical treatment a sailor needs to recover.

Some version of maintenance and healing has existed since the earliest maritime laws, with maritime codes of the Middle Ages referring to it as “the common law of the sea”. When the Rolls of Oléron, the maritime laws of France, were introduced in England in 1150, they were also about maintenance and healing. King Richard I formally recognized maintenance and healing during his reign (1189-1199). This law was introduced in the Americas and adopted as part of American maritime law after the Revolutionary War.

Today, American sailors are entitled to maintenance and recovery from occupational injuries and illnesses, regardless of fault. They do not need to prove negligence or wrongdoing by a shipowner, employer, crew member or other party to recover benefits.

The Jones Law

While the principle of maintain and recover covered basic expenses and medical care, the rights of injured sailors were not clearly defined in the United States until the 20th century. The Supreme Court has rendered several important decisions in Osceola189 US 158 (1903)a case involving an injured sailor aboard the Osceola, allegedly following a negligent order from the ship’s captain. After revising maritime law dating from the 12th century Rolls d’Oléron, the Court of Cassation confirmed the principle of maintenance and repair and ruled that injured sailors could sue a ship and its owner if their injuries were caused by a seaworthy vessel. However, if a seafarer’s injuries are due to negligence, the seafarer is not permitted to sue. Unfortunately, this decision lasted about 20 years.

It was the passage of Jones Act (the Merchant Navy Act of 1920) which gives seafarers the right to sue their employer for injuries caused by negligence. Families of seafarers who lost their lives in the line of duty were also able to sue for damages. The Jones Act was an important step in the right direction for injured sailors and their families, allowing them to seek compensation not only for basic living expenses, lost income and medical care, but also for treatment. ongoing, pain and suffering, and loss of income. capacity.

If a maritime employer contributes to the injury or death of a seafarer, even to a minor extent, it may be liable under the Jones Act. This is a lower standard than that which applies to most cases of bodily injury or wrongful death on earth.

Airworthiness Doctrine

Another essential element of maritime law is the shipowner’s obligation to provide a seaworthy ship. As the Supreme Court held in Osceola, seafarers have the right to live and work on ships fit for purpose. If a ship is unseaworthy and a sailor is injured, he can sue the shipowner. This applies even if the shipowner was unaware of the hazard or defect.

A ship does not need to be fleeing or actively sinking to be considered unseaworthy. The doctrine of unseaworthiness can apply to any condition that affects a vessel’s ability to perform its intended purpose. This can include poorly maintained equipment like deck winches or derricks, a lack of sufficient lifeboats, missing railings or faulty non-slip surfaces on decks.

When maritime employers hide behind archaic laws

As a sailor’s life is always dangerous, there is every reason to apply some of the oldest maritime principles and customs, such as maintenance and healing. Although we have seen many advancements in ships themselves and the tools and technologies we use to navigate them, weather storms and perform some of a seafarer’s most dangerous tasks, maritime workers continue to face many risks. Some are even increased due to the advancement of the maritime industry, such as offshore drilling operations, transportation of immense quantities of natural gas and oil, and increased demand for production.

Unfortunately, some companies try to hide behind laws that should no longer apply. Congress passed the Limitation of Liability Act 1851 to protect maritime employers from acts beyond their control, such as heavy storms and pirates. She limited their liability for damage resulting from such occurrences to the value of the vessel. While the Limitation of Liability Act was needed at the time, its use has become obsolete.

Today’s shipowners no longer face the same threats of piracy as before. Storms can be predicted more accurately than ever. Even so, some maritime employers attempt to use this archaic law to try to limit their liability when seafarers are catastrophically injured or lose their lives. This is a perfect example of where maritime laws are misused or no longer apply.

Protect seafarers’ rights

US maritime law has had the power to protect sailors for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean employers are doing everything in their power to help injured crew members. This does not mean that shipowners take care to provide seaworthy ships and admit their failures when they do not. Maritime workers need advocates, people who will make it a priority to not only help them recover from accidents and serious injuries, but who will fight to improve conditions for all seafarers.

Arnold and Itkin has been representing maritime workers and their families since 2004. The firm’s litigators have helped after the worst maritime disasters in history, including the Deep water horizon explosion and the loss of Faro, finding answers for those who have been lost and ensuring unparalleled recoveries for those who have suffered the most. When big companies try to use maritime laws to their advantage, ignoring those that protect seafarers and hiding behind those that limit their liability, we hold them accountable. No matter what.