Part 6 – General Maritime Law

What is General Maritime Law?

General maritime law refers to the common law causes of action or claims that have developed through the years.  General maritime law provides additional rights and damages to seamen and maritime workers outside the Jones Act as well as claims for family members of deceased maritime workers.  General maritime law also provides remedies to non-seamen injured in a maritime setting or while involved in maritime activities.  Basically general maritime law encompasses the common law remedies available for maritime related incidents.  (See our article on Definition of Seaman and Seaman Status Test.)

In this section we use the word “seaman” but include all workers who fit within the expanded interpretation of the word “seaman.” We will also use the word “vessel” which also refers to offshore oilrigs, barges and other conveyances and locations.

The statute of limitations controlling general maritime claims is three years from the date of the event that gave rise to the cause of action.  This means that an injured maritime worker has only three years from the date of his injury to file a lawsuit or forever lose his right to make a claim, collect benefits or file a suit.  Warning, there are certain instances that will result in a shortened statute of limitations and  instances that can extend the time for filing a claim; but you should not rely upon your own understanding of this complex area of the law.

For seamen, the most important general maritime provisions are claims for maintenance and cure, unseaworthiness, and common law negligence against a third party.  General maritime law recognizes a strict liability standard in regard to product liability claims and also provides causes of action for wrongful death and negligence that are available to non-seamen injured on navigable waterways.  Strict liability is a legal doctrine that is applied to situations that are considered inherently dangerous.  The theory of strict liability holds a company responsible for any damages resulting from their acts or omissions regardless of any defenses they may raise.  Under strict liability, a plaintiff only needs to show that the defendant’s act or omission was responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.  In 2001, the Supreme Court held that maritime law does recognize an independent cause of action for the death of non-seamen in the territorial waters of a state, in addition to state law remedies.[25]

There are certain circumstances in which the courts have allowed recovery of punitive damages and non-pecuniary loss against non-employer defendants.  A 2004 decision held that a Jones Act seaman who brings a claim against a non-employer, third-party defendant, in which the claim falls completely within general maritime law and not under the Jones Act or any other federal statute, might assert a claim for punitive damages. [26]

General maritime claims include claims of Jones Act seamen and longshoremen against any responsible third party non-employers for negligence causing or contributing to injury or death.  These claims also include claims of passengers and non-seamen for negligence resulting in damages while involved in traditionally maritime activities.

Maritime law covers legal affairs and dealings between ship owners, crewmembers, passengers and cargoes on the high seas and other navigable waters.  The U.S.  Constitution grants federal judicial power to all maritime law cases.  The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction in maritime law cases and made the Supreme Court the final arbiter of admiralty law disputes.  State courts are still allowed to hear some admiralty law cases.

Maritime law originated from ancient customs of early Mediterranean seafaring nations.  The earliest maritime law is said to have influenced the Roman legal system.  Because the fundamental dangers of seafaring have never changed, today’s maritime law is a mixture of ancient rules and new laws.  In fact, the time-honored principles of “maintenance and cure” are still used today.

Who is covered under General Maritime Law?

Anyone who engages in activities on the water will be covered under General Maritime Law in the event of an injury.  Seamen and non-seamen alike can turn to the law of the sea and General Maritime Law for protection.  Different aspects of maritime law extend to different classifications of individuals.  Seamen who are injured on sea-going vessels on navigable waters and on offshore oilrigs that can be towed (not permanently affixed to the ocean floor) are covered under General Maritime Law.  Whether you are a seaman, an officer, a harbor pilot, an oil worker, a technician, a helicopter pilot, work on a tugboat, casino boat, barge, ship, supply boat, semi-submersible drilling rig, jack-up drilling rig or if you become injured on or near the water, you should talk to a maritime law attorney before making a claim or as soon as possible thereafter.

The term “seaman” is very broad under General Maritime Law.  It was the intention of Congress, to protect seamen, and to include all seamen hired to serve on board a vessel.  Federal courts have determined that the term “seaman”:

  • Extends to all persons employed on a vessel to assist in the main purpose of the voyage.
  • Extends to all persons whose duties are maritime in character and rendered on vessels engaged in commerce or trade, in navigable waters.
  • Includes anyone employed on a vessel to which an American corporation holds legal title and which another American corporation operates under demise charter.
  • Shall include persons who otherwise might be deemed not to be a seamen; it includes some that might otherwise be excluded; it does not take anyone out who would otherwise be there.