Why You Should Take Admiralty

I wasn’t planning to talk about admiralty this month, but as Nate suggested that I do so I thought I’d give it a whirl. I am teaching the course this semester, and it is without a doubt my favorite. So let me tell you why it’s a great class to take if you’re in law school now.

1. Admiralty is a great review course for the basic common-law subjects. You examine contract, tort, property, and civil procedure rules that are somewhat different from those on land, which forces you to think about the principles underlying those concepts. For example, maritime contracts are not covered by the Statute of Frauds, many admiralty actions do not allow for a jury trial, and the but-for causation presumption from a violation of a safety statute is stronger here than in ordinary negligence.

2. Admiralty is a leading body of international law. Those of you with a bent towards that subject would probably find a lot to learn here about how that doctrine gets crafted. Moreover, there are specific subjects, such as the treatment of piracy, that bear on current problems like terrorism.


3. Admiralty provides a useful way of thinking about how the law should manage risk. What set maritime commerce apart for centuries was that it was especially hazardous. Consider all of the things that could go wrong (storms, collisions, pirates, enemy navies, icebergs, Moby Dick) with a voyage. Furthermore, there were major principal-agent problems that arose because the owner could not contact or control the captain during the trip, and because the crew had an incentive to seize the ship for its own purposes. The law addressed these questions by imposing more risk-spreading among the parties with interests at risk (through the general average, the limitation of liability defense, the 50/50 rule in contributory negligence, and salvage) and by trying to align the interests of the crew with those of the owner (with maintenance and cure, barratry, the share system on whaling voyages, and the concept of reasonable deviation). In this era where we are thinking anew about risk management, there are some excellent resources here.

4. Where else can you read cases about pirates and sunken treasure?

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3 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    Very cool. Thanks!

  2. Robert Swan says:

    You may very well have convinced me!

  3. dmv says:

    And the case names are awesome.

    And it’s fun because it’s a separate little world within the law, with its own little language to boot.

    On the other hand, there is that saying: Admiralty law is thousands of lawyers arguing over the fate of 5 ships.