How Maritime Law Differs From Law of the Land or Sea

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The lawyers at Haun Mena explain maritime law and how it’s different from the law of the land or sea.

What’s the Difference Between Maritime Law and the Law of the Sea?

Maritime law is United States law to resolve incidents that happen on the seas, including personal injury and property damage. The Law of the Sea is the body of international conventions and agreements that apply to all nations on the high seas.

Understanding the difference between maritime law and the law of the sea

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference between maritime law and the law of the sea is that maritime law applies in the United States, and the law of the sea is international agreements between countries. If you’re injured while working on a U.S. ship, maritime law allows you to sue the ship owner for negligence in a United States court.

Maritime law is the jurisdiction of the United States to impose its own laws and regulations to regulate maritime activity domestically. At the same time, the Law of the Sea is a body of international agreements about the use of the high seas. On the other hand, the Law of the Sea dictates ownership of natural resources and navigational rights worldwide.

What Does Maritime Law Cover?

Maritime law covers many issues and topics, including:

  • License and registration of U.S. ships
  • Regulations governing the movement of passengers and goods through U.S. ports
  • Loan defaults
  • Mortgage non-payment and disputes of terms
  • Maintenance and cure – compensation and healthcare for injured seamen
  • Negligence of ship owners and operators on the high seas
  • Death at sea

Laws may also apply in shipyards, ports and harbors – not necessarily only while a ship is at sea.

United States Maritime Laws

Several of the most prominent U.S. maritime laws include:

Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) – The Jones Act gives injured seamen a path to claim compensation and medical care. The purpose of the law is to encourage and support commercial activity on the high seas. Claims may be brought in federal district court or state court. The law also regulates the sale of vessels and the control of terminal equipment and facilities.

Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) – Surviving families may claim compensation for a worker’s death on the high seas. The law is meant to foster safe working conditions for the often-dangerous work that occurs on the high seas.

Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) – Under this federal law, injured workers may receive medical care, rehabilitation, and financial compensation if they are injured in maritime work. The law applies to navigable waters of the United States and ancillary activities like loading, building, and maritime construction. Several extensions cover workers on U.S. military bases (Defense Base Act), workers on the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States (Outer Continental Shelf Lane Act – OCSLA), and civilian employees of the U.S. military (Non-Appropriated Fund Instrumentalities Act – NAFIA)

It’s important to identify the proper law that applies when pursuing compensation for a maritime injury. The Jones Act and the LHWCA cover different employees. Which law applies depends on the employee’s work in relation to the vessel.

What Does the Law of the Sea Cover?

Topics covered by international law of the sea are:

  • Conservation of the ocean environment
  • Protection of natural resources. Efforts to prevent exploitation and overfishing
  • Defining maritime boundaries
  • Establishment of exclusive economic zones, defining a country’s continental shelf
  • Marine safety, including efforts to prevent accidents
  • Pollution prevention and mitigation, including oil, chemicals, and sewage
  • Search and rescue operations

International Law of the Sea

UNCLOS – Convention of the Law of the Sea – is the primary body of international law governing activities on the high seas. Signed in 1982, 117 states joined in an agreement to establish customs for use of the high seas. More countries have joined UNCLOS since its initial passing. The law has 320 Articles that cover a variety of topics as well as several Annex Articles.

At the outset of UNCLOS, the agreement defines the sovereignty of a state that touches the high seas. Each state has the right to enforce domestic laws up to 12 nautical miles from baselines determined by the Convention. A country’s jurisdiction may enforce its customs, taxation, immigration, pollution, and environmental regulations.

In addition to jurisdiction, primary topics covered by UNCLOS include the ownership of natural resources and the right to navigation. Innocent passage through territorial sea is protected, though it may be temporarily suspended for security purposes after the publication of notice.

Who enforces UNCLOS?

A country that is a party to the UNCLOS Convention may choose a forum for interpreting the articles of the convention or for the settlement of disputes:

  • The International Tribunal For the Law of the Sea (established by Annex to the Convention)
  • International Court of Justice
  • Arbitration forum established by Annex to the Convention
  • Special arbitration tribunal created for categories of specific disputes

See Article 287 – Choice of Procedure

Distinctions Between Maritime Law and Law of the Sea

Maritime law was created by the United States for enforcement by the United States. It governs maritime activity within the jurisdiction and under the authority of the United States. On the other hand, the law of the sea is the body of international agreements relating to the use of the world’s seas.

It is created by agreements between nations and enforced through the same agreements.

Between the law of the land and the law of the sea, there are significant jurisdictional differences and differences in substantive law, especially in personal injury and worker’s compensation.

Attorneys for Maritime Injuries

If you are a seaman injured while working on the high seas or in maritime-related activities, it’s important to correctly understand the laws that apply and how to enforce your rights. Contact our law firm for a free consultation regarding your case.

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