law of admiralty

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The law of admiralty, admiralty law, or maritime law, refers to a body of law relating to seas and navigable bodies of water. Admiralty law extends to incidents that occur on the oceans, lakes, rivers, canals, and wetlands. However, admiralty law does not extend to bodies of water that are not navigable and not used in interstate commerce, such as a creek, pond, or stream. 

 Admiralty law covers, among other activities: 

  • Maritime commerce
  • Navigation on bodies of water
  • Towage
  • Maritime liens
  • Piracy
  • Recreational boating
  • Hiring of officers and crews
  • Insuring of naval vessels

Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal judiciary original jurisdiction over maritime law. Cases that arise under maritime law are heard by an admiralty court, which in the United States are the United States District Courts with territorial jurisdiction. Admiralty courts may apply state law but will not do so if applying the state law undermines the uniformity of maritime law. 

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]