When Maritime Law Affects Your Personal Injury Case

Every year, millions of residents and visitors flock to South Carolina coastlines to enjoy the water. From Hilton Head Island to Charleston, and all the Ferry on the Ocean in South Carolinaway up to Myrtle Beach, our state has hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, as well as navigable rivers and lakes to enjoy, too. South Carolina maintains a truly rich diversity of recreational boating and commercial activity on the water.

Most boaters would agree that the freedom of the open water is a real gift, but marine accidents can devastate your life. Even worse, seeking compensation after a boating-related injury can be extremely challenging, as the laws governing maritime accidents are complex and often confusing.

Maritime Injury Lawsuits

The success of a personal injury lawsuit (also called a tort) can depend heavily on the body of law that has jurisdiction over the injury. Inexperienced boaters are often surprised to learn after an accident that it’s not just a simple matter of state personal injury law. Instead, their accident may fall under a more complex set of federal laws, called admiralty law or maritime law. Maritime law can apply to injuries on ship or on shore, and to recreational boaters as well as employers. Times when maritime law may come into play include the following:

  • Ferry accidents
  • Recreational boating accidents
  • Fishing accidents
  • Cruise ship accidents
  • Yachts, charters, or sailboat accidents
  • Barge or tug accidents
  • Jet ski accidents
  • Other personal watercraft accidents

While federal maritime law originally was only responsible for regulating behavior on the ocean, it has since been expanded to cover all navigable waters. A body of water, such as a lake, river, ocean, or waterway, is considered navigable when it is either currently used for interstate or foreign commerce, or capable of being used for interstate or foreign commerce. In order for your case to fall under maritime law, it must have either taken place in navigable waters, or if your injury happened on land, involve a recreational boat in navigable waters. The state maintains a map of navigable waters, available from the State Department of Health and Environmental Control. If your accident happened in a body of water not listed here, such as on a closed pond, it may not fall under federal maritime law.

The other requirement for your injury case to fall under maritime law jurisdiction is that the accident must share a “nexus” (some form of connection) with “traditional maritime activities” and a “potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce.” Commercial activities are included, but so are collisions between recreational boats, per a Supreme Court ruling in 1982 (Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668).

When Your Case Falls Under Federal Maritime Law

Maritime cases may be filed in either state court or federal court; there are advantages and disadvantages to each. One major advantage to filing in federal court is that there is no minimum claim amount—state courts may require the case to exceed $75,000 before they will accept it. However, a federal maritime case does not carry the advantage of trial by a jury of peers. The case will be heard and decided upon only by a judge. This may or may not be an advantage, depending on the nature and details of your case.

Broadly, the laws surrounding maritime cases are a complex web of federal regulations and supplemental rules, with state laws that may fill in the gaps in situations not covered by federal law. In these situations, even if the case is filed in federal court, the court may defer to state laws, meaning South Carolina maritime laws will also be used. For example, South Carolina law prohibits passing within 50 feet of any vessel that’s flying a flag that indicates a diver is in the water. Federal law has nothing to say about this situation, so the court will use South Carolina laws in this case. A personal injury lawyer who specializes in maritime cases will need to know the details of many federal, state, and possibly even local laws in order for your case to succeed.

Legal Help for Your Marine Injury

Whether your injury case falls under federal maritime law or state tort law, you need to have an experienced lawyer by your side. For an attorney who understands the complexities of maritime law, please call the Law Offices of Kenneth E. Berger today, at 803-790-2800. Our offices are conveniently located in Columbia, and we serve clients from all across the state of South Carolina, including the Beaufort, Charleston, Hilton Head Island, and Myrtle Beach areas.