Updated: Wed, 02/06/2013 - 01:02

How maritime law affects you

photo provided Edgar M. Smith, HunterMaclean
photo provided Edgar M. Smith, HunterMaclean
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Maritime law involves a wide array of legal concerns, with attorneys representing parties as diverse as cargo ship owners, insurance companies, banks, recreational boat owners and longshoremen.

This specialized area of legal practice combines U.S. statutory law, common law known as “general maritime law,” and international regulations governing the relationships among private entities operating vessels on lakes, rivers, oceans and other navigable bodies of water.

In its recent opinion in the case of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., the nation’s highest judicial power made an important distinction about what constitutes a “vessel,” underscoring the peculiarities under federal maritime law.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that Fane Lozman’s houseboat in Florida was not “practically capable” of transportation because it was indefinitely moored, received electricity and other utilities from shore and was not intended to be used in maritime transportation or commerce.

This decision reversed a lower court ruling upholding the city of Riviera Beach’s right to impound and ultimately destroy Lozman’s floating home when he failed to pay his dockage fees in full, refused to sign a new lease and declined to make improvements required by the city.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled the two-story home was not a vessel, depriving the city of power under U.S. maritime law to seize and destroy it. If Lozman’s houseboat was a vessel, the city had the right to seize it pursuant to the Supplemental Federal Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims. Instead, the court determined the city acted improperly by not treating the conflict as a conventional landlord-tenant dispute.

This high-profile case underscores the complexity of maritime law and emphasizes the fact that admiralty law does not always involve container ships and cargo. In fact, admiralty law is remarkably complex, governing activity not only on the water but also on land during the loading and unloading of cargo at ports.

Admiralty disputes can include maritime lien issues, personal injury claims, fuel issues or lost or damaged cargo claims. Disputes over allision and collision are also common.

The International Maritime Organization, originally established by the United Nations in 1958, created a number of international conventions including the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), the Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW), the Collision Regulations (COLREGS), Maritime Pollution Regulations (MARPOL) and the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (IAMSAR). Each of these conventions offers legal guidelines regarding maritime safety issues.

The U.S. Constitution grants original jurisdiction to federal courts regarding admiralty and maritime matters. However, many lawsuits involving incidents in maritime practice may be tried in state court as well.

With major ports in Savannah and Brunswick, coastal Georgia serves as a center for maritime law in the Southeast. When legal issues and disputes arise in or around the water, or for assistance with maritime-related disputes from houseboats to cargo ships, be sure to contact an attorney with real admiralty law experience.

Edgar M. Smith is an associate at HunterMaclean’s Savannah office who specializes in maritime law, contract matters, real estate litigation and business litigation. He can be reached at esmith@huntermaclean.com or 912-236-0261.

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