The history of maritime law is a blend of centuries-old doctrines, international treaties, contemporary legislation, private contracts, and some additional elements crammed into one set of interdependent legal rules. The earliest laws go back to the 7th Century when the maritime code of the Island of Rhodes that governed commercial trade and navigation influenced the maritime law of medieval Italian cities.
U.S. Maritime Laws
The roots of U.S. maritime laws date back to the early English system of admiralty law, which dealt with cases of naval discipline, piracy, and commercial issues. These laws—known as the laws of Hansa Towns, laws of Wisbey, and the laws of Oleron—were brought to the Americas in the 1600s.
Defining Judicial Act
In the U.S., the Judiciary Act of 1789 provided federal courts with jurisdiction over cases of maritime law. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court became the final authority over maritime issues, though the saving to suitors clause often still enables state courts to hear some maritime cases. These principles are used today in such cases as Maintenance and Cure, Negligence, and Unseaworthiness.
The Jones Act
Among the most significant modern statutes of maritime law is the Jones Act, which was adopted in the 1920s to protect seamen and vital U.S. interests by supporting a U.S. merchant marine fleet. Under the act, seamen are provided the right to sue for injury or death caused by their employer’s neglect. The general maritime law also allows seamen to seek damages when a seaworthy vessel is not provided. Also, both seamen and non-seamen can file claims against third-party individuals for any negligence contributing to injury or death.
New Maritime Threats
Although sea travel is safer today than ever before, sea-going hazards continue to cause death, injury, and damage to ships, passengers, crew, and cargo. New dangers have arisen from such cargo as crude oil and natural gas. Maritime transportation of these products has increased the risk of an accident with consequences reaching far beyond the ship and its crew.
Such threats brought new concerns regarding the ship owner’s liability for damage to the marine environment and ecology under maritime law. The results were the passage of a series of maritime laws making shipowners liable for damage caused by oil spills, and to new work rules for seamen on tankers and other types of vessels.