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What Law Governs Admiralty Actions

Admiralty actions, in the absence of statutes, are governed by an amlgam of traditional common-law rules, congressional amendments and modifications and newly created rules.  General maritime law is a federal law.  However, when statutory or judicially created maritime principles do not answer a specific legal question, courts may apply state law.  The state law shall not override the federal law of admiralty.  State courts exercising concurrent maritime jurisdiction are bound to apply substantive federal maritime statutory law and follow United States Supreme Court maritime jurisprudence.  General maritime law is applied to matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, when there is no controlling statute.  Congress has the power to alter, amend or revise the general maritime law.

Although American admiralty courts apply American law, when there is a conflict between the American law and foreign law, the court will apply those principles of choice of law that are consonant with the needs of a general federal maritime law.

“Law of flag” doctrine states that certain maritime matters are determined according to the law of the state or nation whose flag the vessel flies.  Generally law of flag doctrine is applied to matters of discipline on board a vessel.

Admiralty courts apply rules laid down by international treaties and conventions to which the United States is party.  Admiralty courts generally apply internationally recognized rules of navigation, as construed by the American courts.  However, Congress may declare certain rules for inland navigation and in such case those rules governs over international regulation.

The claimant has the right to choose to identify the claim as an admiralty claim to obtain procedural benefits.  However, federal civil procedure rules do not authorize the plaintiff to choose the substantive law applicable to the claim.  If parties specify in their agreement which law will apply, admiralty court will generally give effect to that choice.

When an action is brought in a state court under the “saving-to-suitors” clause, the substantive law to be applied is that which would have been applicable had the action been brought in the admiralty court.  However, when there is a gap in federal maritime law, a state may apply its own law where not inconsistent with federal maritime law.   An admiralty or maritime action which, under the saving-to-suitors clause, has been brought in a state court may be removed to federal court without interfering with the plaintiff’s prerogative, or election of forum, given to him by the saving-to-suitors clause.  Moreover, in the absence of diversity of citizenship, a maritime case which under a saving-to-suitors clause has been properly instituted in a state court is not removable to a federal court.  However, when there is the requisite diversity of citizenship, a maritime cause of action properly instituted in a state court may be removed to a federal court, with the remedy of right to jury trial afforded by the saving-to-suitors clause being preserved in the removal by the court.

Inside What Law Governs Admiralty Actions