Coastal Zone LawAn Introduction to a Specific Type of Civil Litigation: Admiralty Law

August 20, 20200

Civil litigation occurs across a wide variety of legal fields. It encompasses personal injury law, small claims, business law, contract law, torts, and environmental law. An area of law that only some civil litigation attorneys are knowledgeable about are admiralty and maritime law. Today’s blog post will explain what admiralty and maritime law are, and what makes them unique among civil litigation cases.

The Advent of American Admiralty Law

Civil litigation in America has included admiralty and maritime law even prior to the country’s founding: most of the former original colonies housed British vice-admiralty courts. When the United States became its own country, the importance of a strong legal system to oversee navigation and shipping issues, and facilitate commerce, was readily apparent. Admiralty courts were established in the states, until the federal courts were given exclusive jurisdiction (meaning they alone have jurisdiction) over admiralty and maritime law cases by the following means:

The Judiciary Act of 1789 – “. . . the district courts shall have. . . exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, including all seizures under laws of impost, navigation or trade of the United States, where the seizures are made, on waters which are navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burthen, within their respective districts as well as upon the high seas; saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it. . .”

Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution – “The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority; . . . — to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”

28 U.S.C. § 1333 – “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of: (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.

Additionally, Congress has the ability to regulate admiralty and maritime issues through the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, and it is often under the laws created by Congress that civil litigation over admiralty and maritime issues occurs in the U.S.

What “Admiralty and Maritime Law” Covers

While the British distinguished between maritime law (cases upon the high seas) and admiralty law (more local cases involving shipping, harbors, fishing, etc.), the U.S. broadly included all such cases under the “admiralty and maritime jurisdiction” banner. Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction in the U.S., then, includes both acts committed on the high seas or navigable waters, and contracts and transactions with admiralty and maritime subject matter. These include injuries to seamen, collisions/allisions, cargo and transportation of goods, marine insurance disputes, and more.

What Makes Admiralty Law Unique

Admiralty and maritime disputes are substantively and procedurally in a category all their own in the law. Civil litigation over cases “in admiralty” typically occurs in the federal courts, and the substance of the laws and case law are federal (though, common law remedies which can be heard in state courts are preserved). Common law is not binding precedent on courts sitting in admiralty, but rather the courts apply the “general maritime law.”

Procedurally, most civil litigation follows the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. While admiralty law cases follow these rules as well, the rules are different for certain admiralty and maritime law cases, as specifically laid out in the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions.

Whether to file one’s case in state or federal court is thus an important determination, as the substantive law and the rules that apply vary. If you have questions on issues related to admiralty and maritime law, email us at or call Desautel Browning Law at 401.477.0023 today to speak with one of our attorneys.

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