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Maritime Law Overview

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Overview of Maritime Law

Maritime law—also known as admiralty law—is a body of law that governs all maritime-related offenses and other legal issues. Maritime law governs businesses or individuals with ocean-going vessels in the private sector and does not include military naval activities. It covers, but is not limited to, the rights and obligations of ship owners with respect to medical treatment of crewmembers, personal injuries of passengers, maritime liens and mortgages, and salvage/treasure salvage.

Maritime law may include anything concerning wharves, piers and docks as well as navigation, commerce, towage, shipping, seamen, waters, canals, recreation, insurance and maritime liens amongst others. Ship hijacking, better known as piracy, is also an aspect of maritime law. Maritime law differentiates from the Law of the Sea, which concerns public international law and governs relations between different sea-going nations as well as what determines mineral rights, coastal jurisdiction and the rights relating to navigation.

Given the nature and scope of the two distinct bodies of law governing maritime questions, jurisdictional conflicts are inevitable. The additional question of civil liability versus criminal culpability with respect to the ship owner or their representative is also a consideration. Under admiralty, the ship's flag determines which country's laws the ship is subject to; for example, a ship flying the flag of the United States is subject to the laws of the USA regardless of territorial ownership where it sails. The same rules apply to the ship's crew. However, in order to be under the jurisdiction of a country, the flag of that country has to be flown legitimately. There must be substantial contact between the ship and the country it claims in order for these laws to apply. International law strives for uniformity in their maritime laws, though some courts may still refuse jurisdiction if it means applying another country's laws.

In the United States, the courts and Congress seek to create and sustain a uniform body of admiralty law both nationally and internationally in order to facilitate commerce. In the United States, admiralty law is no longer restricted to solely tidal waters but now includes any water that can be navigated for both interstate and foreign commerce as well as recreational boating within the country's borders or control. There are a lot of similarities between admiralty law and civil law, though the two bodies of law are separate; in some cases, civil law may be used in courts of admiralty law if there are no laws covering an issue within the body of admiralty law.

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