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Does Maritime Law Apply to Lakes and Rivers?

July 09, 2022

Does Maritime Law Apply to Lakes and Rivers?

When you are involved in an accident or an incident on a lake or a river, you may not even consider that a special body of federal law will govern any claims you have arising from that accident or incident. Although lakes and rivers seem like the domain of state law, under certain circumstances these waterways may actually be governed by federal maritime law. Maritime law can differ significantly from state law and may also obligate you to pursue your claim in federal court, which can have different rules and procedures from state court.

Therefore, if you have been in an accident on a lake or river, you should not turn to just any attorney for help. Instead, you should speak to a maritime law attorney about your case. A maritime lawyer can review the facts and circumstances of your case to advise you whether maritime law may apply to your claims. A maritime lawyer will also have the special experience necessary to ensure that your rights are timely and properly pursued. 

What Is Maritime Law?

Maritime law, also called admiralty law, refers to the national laws and regulations and international conventions and treaties that govern private affairs that occur on navigable water or in other maritime businesses. Maritime law covers injuries that occur on board or that are caused by vessels or injuries to maritime workers as well as vessel damage and cargo damage, in addition to issues such as the rights to transport goods and passengers in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports, vessel safety, maritime insurance, and the contractual relationships that govern the transportation of cargo and passengers. Maritime law does not cover the use of the oceans, which is a separate area of law known as the Law of the Sea. 

Important Maritime Acts

Today, most of the U.S.’s maritime law is codified into Title 33 and Title 46 of the United States Code. Important statutes that make up domestic maritime law include:

  • The Carriage of Goods by Sea Act
  • Death on the High Seas Act
  • Limitation of Liability Act of 1851
  • The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886
  • Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act)
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
  • The Public Vessels Act & the Suits in Admiralty Act

Courts also still rely on historical concepts that stretch back hundreds of years in maritime law, such as “maintenance and cure” and “salvage.” 

In addition to domestic maritime law, there are several international conventions and treaties that also provide maritime rules and standards. Some of the most important ones include:

  • The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention
  • The Maritime Labor Convention
  • The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL)
  • The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers

When Does Maritime Law Apply?

Generally speaking, federal maritime law will apply to any case that arises on navigable waters. A body of water will be considered “navigable” if it:

  • Experiences the ebb and flow of tides
  • Connects to a continuous interstate waterway
  • Has navigable capacity
  • Is actually navigable

Can Maritime Law Apply to Cases Arising on Lakes and Rivers?

Where a lake or river meets all four criteria to be considered “navigable,” then maritime law may apply to any legal claims and cases that arise from an incident on said lake or river. Lakes and rivers are typically deemed navigable when they are used to support interstate or international trade. Therefore, lakes and rivers that span over state or national borders are usually considered navigable. In addition, rivers that are contained entirely within one state may also be deemed “navigable” if they connect to a lake or other body of water that crosses state or national borders or otherwise facilitates interstate or international trade (such as connecting to the open ocean). 

Does State Law Apply to a Navigable Lake or River?

Under both the U.S. Constitution and federal law, any claims involving injury or damage to property caused by a vessel that can travel on navigable waters are subject to federal maritime law and to the exclusive jurisdiction of federal courts. State law cannot apply to such claims. However, in certain circumstances, a plaintiff with a maritime law claim may have the option of filing suit in state court under the “savings to suitors” clause under the federal statute granting exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty claims to the federal government. 

Even where a plaintiff may be entitled to pursue their maritime claims in state court, the state court is still obligated to enforce federal maritime law to resolve the substantive issues of the case. However, the state court may use its own procedural rules to manage the case. A plaintiff therefore may choose to pursue their case in state court, if they have the option, if they feel the procedural rules are more favorable to them. Of course, the defendant may also have the right to remove a case from state court to federal court where the claim could have been originally filed in federal court. 

Unfortunately, federal courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) have routinely acknowledged that it is not always clear when federal maritime law or state law applies to a case or whether a plaintiff may be entitled to bring their claim in state court versus federal court. This makes it important to speak to an experienced maritime law attorney about your case and to discuss your legal options. 

Contact The Law Offices of Preston Easley for a Free Consultation to Discuss Whether Maritime Law May Apply to Your Case

If you were injured in an accident on a lake or a river, do not assume that state personal injury laws apply to your case. Your rights to financial compensation may in fact be governed by federal maritime law. Contact The Law Offices of Preston Easley today for a free, no-obligation case evaluation to discuss the applicability of maritime law to your injury claims with a knowledgeable maritime accident attorney from our firm. 

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    Longshoremen & Shipyard Workers

    Longshoring and shipyard work are very dangerous occupations. Workers in these fields, along with marine construction workers, are covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, a very generous no-fault workers’ compensation system. It covers medical expenses, temporary disability, permanent disability and vocational rehabilitation.

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    Jones Act Seamen

    A seaman is a member of the crew of a vessel or group of vessels under common ownership or control. The vessel can be anything from a raft to a cargo ship. We represent seamen who work aboard recreational vessels, tugboats, dredges, barges, skiffs, workboats and cargo ships. We also represent seamen who are marine construction workers

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  • Diving

    We represent people who have been injured in SCUBA diving accidents and Commercial diving accidents. We also handle diving boat accidents. Diving can be very dangerous. We successfully represented a commercial diver who was seriously injured while cleaning the propeller of a U.S. Navy ship at Pearl Harbor

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    Construction & Industrial Accidents

    Construction and industrial sites can be very dangerous. Although you generally cannot sue your own employer for a construction site or industrial accident (generally workers’ compensation is your exclusive remedy against your employer) there are many circumstances in which you can file a third party lawsuit against an entity other than your employer for an unsafe condition at a work site which causes you to be injured

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    Crane & Forklift Accidents

    The Easley firm has extensive experience with crane and forklift accidents and workplace accidents involving dangerous equipment and machinery. These accidents can be caused by operator error and they can be caused by the unsafe and defective condition of the equipment

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    Motor vehicle accidents can result in serious injury and death. These kinds of accidents can involve automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and unsafe road design and unsafe road conditions

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  • Catamaran Injuries Attorney

    Passenger Vessel Accidents

    Passenger accidents are common on recreational vessels, catamarans, tour boats and cruise ships.  They are frequently caused by rough sea conditions and unsafe conditions aboard the vessels.  The Easley firm has extensive experience in the field of maritime law.  We have made new law in the field of maritime law with numerous precedent setting decisions in the State Appellate Courts, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court

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  • Defense Base Act

    The Defense Base Act is an extension of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act which covers civilian employees of U.S. defense contractors injured overseas, including war zones. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensations Act as extended by the Defense Base Act is a very generous no fault workers’ compensation system

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Areas Where We Practice

Preston Easley is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He served five years of active duty as a Naval officer — three years as a deck officer on a fast frigate and two years as a patrol boat skipper. Mr. Easley also served aboard a tank landing ship in the reserves.




Let Us Get You The Compensation You Deserve

Preston Easley is an experienced lawyer with considerable expertise in handling federal and state personal injury cases. He will aggressively seek the maximum amount of compensation you are entitled to receive. Attorney Easley represents victims of serious and fatal accidents involving cars, trucks, construction projects and maritime work.

Construction Workers We Help

  • Crane and Forklift Operators
  • Pile Drivers
  • Scaffold Workers
  • Iron Workers
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Operating Engineers
  • Electricians

Maritime Workers We Help

  • National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) Shipyard Workers
  • Manson Construction Company Workers
  • Manson Dredging Workers
  • Dutra Dredging Workers
  • Commercial Divers
  • Scuba Divers
  • Commercial Fisherman
  • Government Maritime Claims Against the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, or the US Coast Guard, etc.
  • Marine Construction Workers
  • Offshore Oil and Gas Workers
  • Seamen
  • Shipyard Workers
  • YYK Enterprises, Inc.
  • Pacific Tugboat Service
  • Long Beach Container Terminal
  • Tugboat, Dredge, Longshoremen, and Ferry Workers
  • Barge Crews and Barge Workers
  • Marisco Limited
  • HL Welding
  • SSA Marine
  • Catalina Express
  • R.E. State Engineering
  • Shimmick Construction
  • Nova Group
  • American Scaffolding
  • Safway Scaffolding
  • Kirby Tugs
  • Crowley Tugboats
  • P&R Water Taxi
  • Continental Maritime
  • Pacific Ship Repair
  • Seaward Marine
  • Healy Tibbitts
  • General Construction
  • BAE Shipyards
  • South Coast Welding
  • Matson
  • Pasha
  • Hawaii Stevedores, Inc.
  • McCabe, Hamilton & Renny
  • Young Brothers
  • Sause Bros.
  • Foss Maritime
  • Fenix Marine Services
  • ITS
  • Total Terminals
  • TraPac
  • PCMC
  • Maersk
  • Yang Ming
  • China Overseas Shipping
  • Evergreen

Boating Accidents

  • Catamaran Accidents
  • Charter and Tour Boats
  • Cruise Ship Accidents
  • Passenger Accidents
  • Jet Ski and Personal Watercraft
  • Motorboat Accidents
  • Recreational Accidents
  • Scuba Diving Accidents
  • Speed Boat Accidents
  • Yachts and Sail Boat Accidents
  • Repair Accidents
  • Crew Accidents
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