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Jurisdiction in Cases of Maritime Accidents

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For one that is injured at sea, the law that governs any resulting legal actions is often unclear. The obvious questions that are asked is where the accident occurred and what role the worker was worker was performing at the time of the accident. Domestic issues are within the purview of maritime law, while international matters of how countries relate to each other are subject to the Law of the Sea.

Maritime law is a private body of law that covers shipping, injuries and other matters that occur in navigable waters. What is navigable depends on whether the body of water is used in interstate or international commerce. A lake would likely not be navigable waters, unless one was referring to one of the Great Lakes. A maritime accident would typically invoke maritime law, which is a collection of various laws and customs that have evolved over the years. There are two types of maritime law. The first is governed by statute. There are several federal laws that government admiralty. The most major of these laws is the Merchant Marine Act, which is also known as the Jones Act. Other relevant statutes are the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. The constitution gives federal courts jurisdiction over maritime and admiralty issues. However, while Congress has enacted the laws, it has never enacted a formal maritime code, leading to some gaps in applicable laws.

The other type of law governing admiralty is general maritime law. General maritime law has developed over the years as a body of common law, which covers areas that are not addressed by the federal statutes mentioned in part above. Courts have incorporated various customs and precedents over the years to develop their own body of judicial law. General maritime law usually emanates from the relationship between the employer and the employee. Areas covered by general maritime law include salvage, collisions and marine insurance.

There is an open question as to which law to apply when an accident occurs outside of United States territorial waters. When traveling on a vessel flying a foreign flag outside of U.S. territorial waters, the laws of the country where the vessel is domiciled apply to any resulting legal action. However, when traveling on a cruise ship, the passenger’s cruise ticket will contain a choice of law provision, dictating where the passenger can file suit against the cruise line. The location is usually in Seattle, Miami or Los Angeles.

The Law of the Sea is international in nature and governs how countries interact with each other at sea. This is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was codified in 1994. The UNCLOS allows countries to set their nautical borders, states who owns natural resources located offshore, and sets rules related to navigational rights through territorial waters. The Law of the Sea applies to public actors, while maritime law applies to private actors.