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Admiralty and Maritime Law

Historical Background

    The terms "admiralty" and "maritime" are frequently used interchangeably.  "Admiralty," refers to the body of law and procedures that govern matters related to the carriage of goods or passengers on the high seas and navigable inland waters.  The term "maritime," however, is a far more general term.   

    The source of modern day admiralty law is hidden in the ancient past .   It is thought by some scholars that it may be traced back as far as 900 B.C. to the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean.   Whatever its origin, it is very old indeed, and doctrines clearly recognizable to today's admiralty practitioner may be found in several medieval maritime codes.  Special courts arose in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Baltic trading states to enforce what was accepted by these states as a form of international law arising from the longstanding customs of the sea.  Of particular interest to us is the system established in England where courts set up under the cognizance of the Lord High Admiral were, in the latter part of the 14th century, given jurisdiction to hear civil cases limited to "a thing done upon the sea."   This system of separate Courts of Admiralty was still in existence throughout the time England colonized North America.  Colonial courts were set up under the Vice-Admiralty in British North America and given expanded jurisdiction to hear criminal and civil matters involving colonists.  Following the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States incorporated the English judicial system.  Our constitution together with the Judiciary Act of 1789, give the federal judiciary cognizance of matters which were within the jurisdiction of the British Admiralty.  The system of separate admiralty courts with separate procedures was continued in the United States until 1966, when the courts were unified.  Even though they are now unified, separate and distinct admiralty procedures are still available and the substantive law applied to decide cases, whether in state or federal court is the body of federal admiralty law.

    This interesting history of admiralty law has very real consequences to those who find themselves pressing claims within the admiralty jurisdiction.  The criminal and civil law with which we are most familiar is derived from the English common law.  The law of admiralty, however, having had its origin in the Mediterranean and European sea trade, more closely resembles the European civil law system than the English common law.  One significant difference which proved an irritant to our colonial forefathers given the expanded jurisdiction of the British Admiralty Court in the American colonies is the lack of jury under admiralty procedures.  Fortunately provisions of law make it possible, in many cases, to maintain an action in the various state courts, or on the "law side" of the federal court, and to retain the important right to a jury trial and other common law remedies.  Even in such cases, however, the substantive law applied to decide the case is the law of admiralty.

The Substantive Law of Admiralty

   Admiralty law provides a whole range of rights and remedies to those injured within its jurisdiction. Those rights and remedies may vary according to the status of the person making the claim.  For example, the remedies available to a member of a crew are quite different from those available to a passenger.  Admiralty law  also affects the defenses which might be raised against a claim.   In some cases making available defenses unknown to the common law, and in other cases removing defenses long established and accepted in common law cases.   For these reasons it is important for anyone with a claim arising on or adjacent to the oceans or waterways to seek the advice of an attorney knowledgeable in this area of practice.