If you head up the Mississippi on a riverboat or book a cruise out of New Orleans, you’ll step off the shore and into the world of maritime law. If you or a loved one are hurt or killed on the river or at sea, your case won’t fall under state jurisdiction. It would be covered by the federal laws that apply to all navigable waters.

So what are these maritime laws, and how do they differ from state law? Here are some of the most important things for passengers to understand.

Maritime law isn’t just for the ocean

Also known as admiralty law, maritime law applies to all navigable waters. This means the Gulf and the oceans, but it also means all rivers and lakes that ships might travel for international or interstate business.

There’s more than one maritime law

U.S. maritime law is a larger area of law governed by multiple smaller laws. Taken together, these laws:

  • Regulate shipping commerce
  • Set expectations for ships and their crew
  • Protect the U.S. border
  • Offer protections to seafarers, longshoremen, passengers and others

The law applies to passengers as well as crew

Maritime law offers protection to passengers as well as crew members. As the Federal Bar Association notes, the law covers passengers in two different ways:

  • Passengers can sue when someone’s negligence leads to injury. These injury claims look a lot like the injury claims you’d see filed with a state, but they’re heard by an admiralty court. This means injured passengers need to work with attorneys who know maritime law.
  • Passengers may also show that the ship’s owner, captain or even the ship itself were not up to code or following the law. These statutory violations can be grounds for an injury suit.

Yes, you can find the ship at fault

The fact that you can sue the ship is commonly regarded as one of the more interesting aspects of maritime law.

Trespassers aren’t protected

Don’t get hurt if you’ve climbed aboard a ship without permission. The law only protects lawful passengers. You won’t have a claim if you’ve stolen the ship or snuck aboard it.

It’s sometimes possible to file state claims alongside your maritime claims

Personal injury claims can get complicated when businesses are involved. They can get even more complicated when the cases concern businesses, ship owners, ships, crew, federal regulations and federal laws. Depending on your case, the fault may lie with several different people or organizations.

Some of these people, such as crew, may be covered under maritime law. Others, such as business owners, might be responsible under state law.

Would my fishing trip be covered under maritime law?

Although maritime law generally aims toward commerce, it applies to most cases on navigable waters, including chartered fishing trips and recreational boating.

Yes, maritime law cases can be as complicated as they sound

Maritime law cases are generally more complicated than standard injury cases. They rely on different laws and go to different courts. Many attorneys aren’t familiar enough with these laws to take maritime cases, so people injured on ships generally need to take their cases to maritime attorneys.