Admiralty Law and Courts

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ADMIRALTY LAW AND COURTS. Admiralty law covers disputes resulting from maritime casualties and private transactions related to ships and the transport of cargoes and passengers by sea. It is a unique body of law, based on centuries of tradition emerging from the seafaring traditions of the ancient Mediterranean world and enriched in recent years by international agreements and national statutes. The word "admiral" comes from the Arabic amir-al-bahr, meaning "commander of the sea." "Admiralty" or "maritime law" covers private commercial disputes and is distinct from "the law of the sea" or "ocean law," which covers public-law relations among governments, including maritime boundaries, navigational freedoms, resource exploitation, and environmental protection.

The earliest admiralty principle is traced to the island of Rhodes more than 2,000 years ago: "if, for the sake of lightening a ship, a jettison of goods has been made, what has been given for all will be made up by the contribution of all." This notion has evolved into the principle of the "general average," which is central to admiralty, and to the modern law of insurance. Codes of admiralty principles were promulgated by the major maritime cities and countries during the medieval period, and these codifications continue to provide important historical anchors for modern admiralty codes. Some countries, including Britain, established separate "admiralty courts." Today, admiralty disputes are resolved by courts of general jurisdiction, but they still look to a distinct body of law based on the ancient codes of the maritime world to decide such controversies. The United States has never had separate admiralty courts, but separate rules governed admiralty disputes until 1966, when these rules were merged with the general procedural rules governing civil litigation.

Article III, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives federal courts authority over "all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction," and the 1789 Judiciary Act assigned these cases to the federal district courts it created. In the United States, therefore, admiralty disputes are almost always resolved in the federal courts rather than the courts of the fifty states. Among the topics currently included within the domain of admiralty law are insurance of ships and cargoes, bills of lading, charters, towage, pilotage, sailors' rights (in the event, for instance, of injury or death), collision, salvage, maritime liens, ships' mortgages, liability limitations, piracy, and the effect of warfare on commercial transports.

The substantive law that U.S. federal courts apply in admiralty disputes is the general customary law that judges find from the ancient codifications and earlier judicial decisions. In his dissenting opinion in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer (1960), Justice Felix Frankfurter said that "no area of federal law is judge-made at its source to such an extent as is the law of admiralty." But some U.S. statutes are important in clarifying and resolving disputed areas, including the 1927 Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (establishing a detailed workers' compensation regime), the 1920 Jones Act (relating to injury or death of sailors), the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act, the 1851 Limited Liability Act (concerning cargoes), the 1893 Harter Act (regulating cargo liability issues), the 1936 Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA; the central statute in commercial maritime law today and one of the most frequently litigated statutes involving international trade), and the 1912 Salvage Act.

The key international agreements regulating maritime disputes today are the 1910 Brussels Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law with Respect to Collision Between Vessels, the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS), and the 1994 York-Antwerp Rules regulating the general average. The 1910 Collision Convention entered into force in 1913, but is not in force in the United States because U.S. cargo interests objected to its failure to require joint and several liability (which would make each party contributing to the accident liable for the full loss if the other parties could not pay). The 1972 collision regulations were adopted through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the London-based United Nations agency in charge of shipping, and came into force in 1977. The York-Antwerp Rules emerged from an 1864 conference in York, United Kingdom, followed by an 1877 meeting in Antwerp, Belgium, and they have been revised every twenty to twenty-five years. These rules are not a formal treaty subject to ratification but rather a set of principles governing liability that are included almost automatically in every private cargo contract.

Admiralty law is rich with its unique history and tradition, and court cases adjudicating issues relating to the rights of crewmembers or the duties of companies providing marine insurance typically employ the colorful, salty language that is associated with maritime adventures. Although the principles applied do not differ dramatically from those that apply to land-based disputes, court decisions nonetheless draw upon the heritage that has formed this special area of the law, and it remains an independent discipline with its own language and its own distinctive governing treaties and statutes.


Gilmore, Grant, and Charles L. Black Jr. The Law of Admiralty. 2d ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1975.

Robertson, David W., Steven F. Friedell, and Michael F. Sturley. Admiralty and Maritime Law in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.

Jon M.Van Dyke

See alsoJones Act .