What is Maritime Law? What Does a Maritime Lawyer Do?

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Maritime lawyers have specific knowledge and expertise in the field of maritime or admiralty law. This is a distinct body of law that governs activities and offenses that take place on navigable waters, including oceans, rivers, streams and lakes. It also covers some activities, such as loading or unloading ships, that take place on land but are maritime in nature.

Maritime law can be particularly complex. While the U.S. federal courts have original jurisdiction over maritime cases, they do not have exclusive jurisdiction. In other words, some cases, such as those related to claims for personal injuries, cargo damage, maritime products liability and boating accidents may be brought in either federal or state courts. The appropriate way to file a maritime case depends on a variety of factors, including the nature of the case and whether or not it involves negligence on the part of a shipowner or another party.

Maritime law also has a unique set of statutes of limitations. For most maritime claims, the injured parties or their families must file formal lawsuits in the proper courts within a standard three-year period or their claims may be barred. Similarly, some wrongful death claims, in particular against U.S. Government ships or private ships operating under contracts with the U.S. Government must be filed within 18 months. Cases involving cruise ships, such as cruise ship injuries usually require written notice of claims within six months and suit within one year in a court specifically designated on the passenger ticket.  

Because of the complexities involved in maritime cases, it is important to consult with a qualified maritime lawyer who has the knowledge and experience needed to protect your rights.  

Types of Maritime Injury Claims

Many maritime law cases involve personal injury or wrongful death to seamen, longshoremen or passengers. Federal law governs these claims, because state workers' compensation laws that apply to land-based employment do not apply to work aboard vessels.  

Like state workers' compensation claims, for most cases involving personal injury, it does not matter who is at fault for an accident aboard ship. “Maintenance and cure” rights become effective automatically. These rights ensure that seamen get the medical care and compensation they need to achieve maximum medical recovery.

Negligence in Maritime Law

However, many cases do involve negligence on the part of the shipowner, another employee or the “unseaworthiness” of a vessel. These claims fall under a federal law known as the Jones Act. This law provides for much larger awards than most state-level workers’ compensation claims. For example, legal damages under the Jones Act often include compensation for  

  • medical expenses
  • lost wages
  • lost earning capacity
  • pain and suffering
  • mental anguish
  • disfigurement

However, obtaining full compensation for injuries under the Jones Act entails meeting several tests, including:

  • Proving that the injuries resulted from employer or co-worker negligence  
  • Filing the case with the appropriate court within the applicable statute of limitations  
  • Demonstrating the worker's status at the time the injury occurred.
  • Determining which available legal remedies will provide the greatest financial recovery to the injured worker  

Filing a Maritime Injury Claim

Maritime claims are usually handled in one of three ways: direct negotiations with an employer or an insurance adjuster; administrative legal proceedings before a state or federal agency; or filing suit in a state or federal court with related negotiations or litigation. However, the specific procedures involved and the length of the claim process can vary greatly depending on the nature of the claim. Moreover, the length of time it takes to settle an individual claim often depends on the amount of time and effort it takes to fully investigate the incident and assess the particulars of the case.  

If the shipowner or the insurer seems to be ignoring the claim or prolonging the process unduly, it may be necessary to initiate an administrative proceeding or a lawsuit to resolve the case quickly. These cases may entail holding a hearing or a trial in the appropriate court.  In this respect, it is important to bear in mind that federal maritime laws do not guarantee the right to litigation before a jury, although claims brought under the Jones Act do carry that right.  

It is also important to bear in mind that employers and insurance companies often place injured employees under surveillance to determine whether they are inappropriately applying for unemployment, working against medical advice or engaging in activities that may be seen as inconsistent with a claimed medical disability. Some employers have even been known to make job offers that are inconsistent with medical disabilities to entice injured workers into negating their claims.

Talk to a Maritime Injury Lawyer

Some shipowners may try to discourage employees injured on the job from obtaining information about their legal rights. They may ask workers to sign waivers or written statements that will minimize their claims or try to get workers to file claims under workers' compensation laws or longshoreman and harbor worker laws instead of under the Jones Act.  

To protect your rights, it is important to seek the counsel of a competent maritime lawyer who will communicate with your employer and insurance companies on your behalf, ensure all your current and future medical bills are paid and that you receive the full cash settlement you deserve.

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