Maritime law pre-dates the United States Constitution, and has international roots and concerns. Not surprisingly, many of its procedures and basic legal principles are dissimilar to those found in land-based litigation. The application of maritime law (also known as the “law of admiralty”) by American courts is frequently outcome determinative, yielding litigation results that often surprise non-maritime practitioners with different judgments or verdicts than they expected.
To a great extent, the possibility of surprise can be reduced by understanding four general (but not always followed) principles:
- If admiralty jurisdiction exists, federal maritime law, as created by Congress and the federal courts, generally governs the dispute. State law should not be applied when it would contradict a settled admiralty rule;
- If a tort occurs (or takes effect) on navigable waters, and has a connection with maritime commerce or navigational safety, it likely falls within admiralty jurisdiction;
- If a contract bears a significant relationship to maritime commerce or vessel navigation (i.e., has a “salt water smell”), it is quite probably a maritime contract, and any litigation arising out of the contract is also subject to admiralty jurisdiction; and
- Federal courts are where the majority of maritime cases are heard. However, under a 1789 Congressional enactment, the “saving to suitors” clause allows state courts to decide many (but not all) maritime disputes, so long as the state courts apply roughly the same substantive maritime law as would be applied in federal court.