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Practice Areas & Settings

Navigating the Practice of Maritime Law

Stephen W Koerting and Shea Watson

Navigating the Practice of Maritime Law
ShannonDuggan via iStock

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The state of Maine has 6,000 lakes and great ponds, a tidal coastline that winds for 3,500 miles (which is equivalent to the distance between New York City and London), a world-renowned fishing industry, and the closest American ports to Europe and Africa. Accordingly, Maine provides plenty of opportunities in the field of maritime law. This niche area of law is not limited to Maine or even to coastal states and territories. Maritime law—also known as admiralty law—is unique because it often involves multistate or international elements.

What is maritime law? Do maritime lawyers represent water? Boats? Fishermen? Fish? Fish farms? A paddleboarder? A passenger enjoying a cruise ship’s open bar a little too much? The ship’s bartender? Throughout their careers, maritime attorneys will likely check off most of these boxes and more.

A Multidisciplinary Practice

Maritime law often incorporates more familiar areas of law, like contract, tort, or property. However, it is the connection to navigable waters—and the accompanying distinct set of case law, statutes, rules, vocabulary, and salt-of-the-earth clientele—that makes the practice so unique. Maritime lawyers are frequently on their toes, and their work is never dull.

In recent years, our firm has represented countless crewmembers on vessels big and small, engineers on offshore oil rigs, aquaculture workers tending to salmon pens, and families of those tragically lost at sea. We have arrested vessels and dealt with disputed vessel charters. In addition to litigating cases for our clients, we provide annual instruction to Maine’s harbormasters regarding legal issues facing this position critical to the state’s many harbors and inland waters. Our practice reflects maritime issues’ broad impact on numerous aspects of life and law.

Maritime Personal Injury

Nearly every admiralty attorney’s arsenal includes maritime personal injury practice. Unlike most landside claims, maritime personal injury claims can involve significant litigation over the classification of “who,” “what,” and “where” to determine the applicable law to the case. For example, if the injury is to a ship’s passenger, the claim falls within general maritime law. However, if the injury is to a maritime worker qualifying as a “seaman” (e.g., a sternman on a lobster boat), the injured person may have claims for unseaworthiness under general maritime law or negligence under the Jones Act, a federal law regulating maritime commerce in the United States.

Unseaworthiness generally means that a vessel was not maintained, equipped, or staffed safely. For example, a vessel can be unseaworthy due to insufficient personal protective equipment, a faulty gaff, or an intoxicated crewman. Jones Act negligence is similar to common law negligence but with plaintiff-friendly law and jury instructions. Additionally, seamen injured in the line of work are not eligible for workers’ compensation under federal and most states’ laws. Still, they are entitled to “maintenance” (actual and reasonable living expenses) and “cure” (payment of related medical bills and expenses) until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement.

Unfortunately, death in the line of maritime work is not uncommon. Such cases might be controlled totally, or partially, by the Death on the High Seas Act, limiting recovery to conscious pain and suffering if the deceased does not have qualifying dependents. Death at sea might also fall under the Jones Act, general maritime law, or state wrongful death statutes.

Although the serious degree of damages, injuries, and loss can make maritime cases challenging from both legal and personal perspectives, providing clients with some level of closure and justice during a difficult time is nonetheless rewarding.

Pursuing a Career in Maritime Law

Maritime law is an exciting niche practice of law that can have varying applications to other law practices if there is relation to water or a boat. Given the specific, often antiquated, law controlling the practice along with the interplay between state and federal jurisdiction, a new lawyer trying to establish a maritime practice through self-teaching or after a maritime law class may find themselves underwater. The best way for a new lawyer interested in maritime law to get into the practice is to join, or associate with, a law firm with an established and reputable maritime practice. Prior legal experience with the incorporated area of law—whether personal injury or another field—or other practical experience with maritime subject-matter is also helpful but not necessary to transition to the practice.