News & Insights

“What Is Admiralty Law?” Featured in FBA – Maryland Chapter Newsletter

WCS attorneys David W. Skeen, Esquire and Meighan G. Burton, Esquire were recently featured in the Federal Bar Association, Maryland Chapter Newsletter. The featured article, “What Is Admiralty Law?” is available below. View the full FBA Maryland Chapter Newsletter here.


            When people ask me, in whatever roundabout way, what I do for a living, I have my elevator speech prepared.  “I am an admiralty lawyer” I say, “you know, anything to do with ships, boats, and the water.”  Generally, their curiosity satisfied, we move on to other topics.  Occasionally, a further explanation is required.  Here it is.

            What follows is an overview of the history of admiralty law[1] and discussion of some of the problem areas in federal maritime matters that may be of interest to other federal practitioners. 


            For thousands of years, watercraft have carried people and goods in commerce on the rivers and seas of the world.  Admiralty law may be loosely defined as the rules relating to the carriage of goods and people across water. The word “admiral” comes from Arabic, and its usage was adopted in the Mediterranean and eventually in England to mean the “lords of the sea.”[2]

            Early admiralty law took the form of written codes which were nothing more than catalogues of customs then existing between merchants and mariners.[3]  The commercial law or “law merchant” went hand in hand with the establishment of laws governing ships and the carriage of goods and people.  For example, one of the world’s oldest legal codes, The Code of Hammurabi, promulgated around 1780 B.C., provides in part that “the master of the merchant man, which wrecked the ferryboat, must compensate the owner for the boat and all that he ruined.”[4]

            By the beginning of the Renaissance and the emergence of the Italian city-states such as Venice and Naples, commercial trade blossomed and expanded to the Atlantic ports of Western Europe and into the Baltic Sea.  Civil sea codes were adopted in England circa 1266 A.D. through the Laws of Oleron.[5]

            In England, jurisdiction over “things done upon the sea” became the concern of the “admiralty” courts.[6]  The first admiralty courts operated in accordance with a civil code, and without a jury (contrary to the common law courts of England).[7]  Divorce and ecclesiastical law matters were also confined to the same civil courts as admiralty law and all practitioners in those courts were known as “proctors.”[8]  The term “Proctor in Admiralty” is still in use today for certain lawyer members of the Maritime Law Association of the United States.[9] 

            With the settlement of North America, admiralty courts were established in most of the colonies, including Maryland, to facilitate the business of maritime commerce.[10]  Following the American Revolution, the founding fathers, aware of the importance of uniformity of laws to healthy maritime commerce, made admiralty law a federal concern under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, and assigned admiralty law administration to the federal courts in the Judiciary Act of 1789.[11]  From the start, the “principal justification” for the establishment of the District Court for the District of Maryland was to adjudicate admiralty matters.[12]  The court’s business was substantially limited to admiralty.[13]  State courts also exercise jurisdiction over admiralty matters in some instances, however, matters such as an admiralty arrest and sale of a vessel, are exclusively the province of the federal courts.[14]

            Over time, the Supreme Court of the United States expanded the jurisdiction of the federal admiralty courts and the reach of admiralty law beyond the more narrowly circumscribed ‘tidal waters’ jurisdiction in England.[15]  The American courts developed and adopted procedures and rules for arrest and attachment of vessels, pre-suit depositions to preserve testimony, interlocutory appeals, and the exercise of broad equitable powers of admiralty judges to assure a speedy and uniform resolution of commercial shipping disputes to promote maritime commerce.


            Plaintiffs in admiralty cases are divided into “seafarers” and “non-seafarers.”[16]  Seafarers are generally professional mariners who receive the highest level of protection from personal injury and death.  Seafarers, because of their history of difficult and dangerous working conditions and abuse from being at the mercy of ship masters while away from their homes for long periods of time, are traditionally considered “wards of admiralty” and are entitled to special protection from the courts.[17]  Seafarers enjoy unique historical remedies such as “maintenance and cure,” the provision of medical care and support of a seaman who is injured or falls ill while he is subject to the call of duty.  Maintenance and cure, a precursor of workers’ compensation, is paid regardless of fault and until the seafarer reaches maximum cure.[18]  In addition, seafarers may recover for injuries and death under the Jones Act, the seagoing counterpart of the Federal Employees Liability Act remedy for railroad workers.[19]  The Jones Act provides for a lower burden of proof as to causation, elimination of the defense of assumption of risk, application of comparative fault, and a jury trial.[20]  Seafarers are also entitled to a warranty of seaworthiness from the vessel owner.[21]  This warranty is a form of absolute liability for defective conditions of a vessel and notice of the defect may not be required.

            Longshore and harbor workers have their own special workers’ compensation statute, which provides scheduled benefits for certain injuries without requiring proof of the employer’s fault.[22]  A substantial amount of admiralty litigation involves whether these so-called “amphibious workers,” who work on both land and sea, are subject to the Longshore Act, or as members of the crew of certain watercraft, qualify for coverage under the more generous Jones Act. 

            Surprisingly, paying passengers on vessels are only entitled to a duty of ordinary care from the ship operator.[23]  The same is true of passengers on recreational boats.  In either case, comparative fault applies; not the conflicting state law rules such as contributory negligence.[24]

What – is a Vessel?

            One would think after centuries of admiralty jurisprudence, a settled legal definition of “vessel” would have emerged, but such is not the case.  Until recently, anything that could float and was capable of transporting people or goods across the water was considered a “vessel.”[25]  However, recently the Supreme Court has narrowed the definition, holding that even if a structure floats and is theoretically movable across the water, for example, a houseboat, it is a vessel only if a reasonable person would view its use for transportation as “practical.”[26]  Thus, a movable drilling rig may be considered a vessel and subject to admiralty law, unless it is moved only occasionally and at great expense.[27]

            Vessel status is important to the application of admiralty law.  Many admiralty remedies, including limitation of shipowner’s liability, in rem liability, the warranty of seaworthiness, and Jones Act status, depend on vessel status.  Fixed structures, such as piers and fixed offshore drilling rigs secured to land or the sea floor, are considered extensions of the land.  Injuries on fixed structures are subject to state law.  

[1]  Today the terms “admiralty” and “maritime” as descriptions of this body of law are virtually interchangeable. Grant Gilmore and Charles L. Black, Jr., The Law of Admiralty 1 (2d ed. 1975).

[2]   Id. at 1.

[3]  Id. at 2.

[4]  Code of Hammurabi ¶240, available at http://www.admiraltylawguide.com/documents/hammurabi.html

[5]   Gilmore & Black, supra note 1 at 7.

[6]   Id. at 9.

[7]   Nicholas J. Healy and David J. Sharpe, Admiralty Cases and Materials 3 (2d ed. 1986).

[8]   Id. at 860.

[9]   Id.

[10]  David R. Owen and Michael C. Tolley, Courts of Admiralty in Colonial America: The Maryland Experience, 1634-1776 (Carolina Academic Press, 1995)(Maryland was the first colonial admiralty court).

[11]  H. H. Walker Lewis and James F. Schneider, A Bicentennial History of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, 1790-1990, 12 (Md. Fed. Bar Assoc. 1990).

[12]  Id.

[13]  Id.

[14]  28 U.S.C. §1333 (1(Savings to Suitors Clause, Judiciary Act of 1789).

[15]  See Owen & Tolley, supra note 10 at 211.

[16]  See, e.g., Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, fn. 2 (1996).

[17]  Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480, 482 (C.C.D. Me. 1823) (J. Joseph Story).

[18]  Calmar S. S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527 (1938).

[19]  The Federal Employees Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq.; The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104.

[20]  46 U.S.C. §30104.

[21]  Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 549 (1960).

[22]  Longshore & Harbor Workers Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 901, et seq.

[23]  Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 1959 AMC 597 (1959).

[24]  See, e.g, Matthews v. Howell, 359 Md. 152, 753 A.2d 69 (2000).

[25]  Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co., 543 U.S. 481, 2005 AMC 609 (2008); Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 568 U.S.     , 133 S. Ct. 735, 2013 AMC 1 (2013).

[26]  Id.

[27]  See Rodrique v. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co., 395 U.S. 352, 1969 AMC 1082 (1969). Under Lozman, supra, some movable drilling rigs are no longer considered vessels if they are only moved only occasionally and at great expense. See Mooney v. W. & T. Offshore, Inc., Civ. 12-969, 2013 AMC 1780 (E.D. La. March 6, 2013).