6.17.2010

The Other Side of the Jones Act

The oil spill is thrusting U.S. maritime law into the limelight to a greater extent than the country has seen for at least a half century.

In recent days, for example, we've seen a different side of the Jones Act come into play - one that's hampering relief efforts.

Here along the Gulf Coast, most people know vaguely of the Jones Act as the personal injury statute for seamen - those who are assigned to a vessel and perform some task in furtherance of the vessel's mission.  But the 1920 legislation also has what are called maritime "cabotage" provisions - essentially protectionist language that helps to maintain a domestic U.S. "coastwise" fleet for any marine voyages between two points in the U.S. (or one U.S. port with no intervening stops abroad).  Almost every single maritime nation has cabotage laws and the U.S. cabotage provisions date back to 1789. 

Importantly, the Jones Act is not the only U.S. cabotage law potentially in play:

U.S. Maritime Cabotage Laws include 31 separate enactments governing the transportation of cargo and passengers between two points in the United States , its territories and possessions, and all dredging, towing, salvage and other marine operations and fishing in U.S. waters. These laws reserve to U.S.-flagged vessels the right to transport cargo and passengers between U.S. ports.

There's also been continued hating on DOHSA, much of which is probably justified. However, I'm quickly realizing how little people know about the law - and the entire legal framework in which it operates. I'm slightly concerned that the feverish emotions from one incident may cause drastic legal changes that might be recognized as inappropriate if the wider landscape of maritime law was considered. Maritime law consists of a good deal of judge-made law interspersed with congressional enactments, it's a continuously evolving body of law based originally in civil law concepts, and a number of its precedents and seminal doctrines have functioned for over a century.  


Maritime law recognizes that ventures on the high seas are inherently more dangerous and uncertain than those undertaken on land, and many of the limitations of liability, etc. that seem "unfair" compared to the law for land-based incidents in the setting of the BP disaster are a bit less outrageous when viewed in light of that history.

UPDATE: Bryant's Maritime Blog captures the flurry of activity in Congress:
Senate - bill introduced to terminate drilling moratorium;
Senate - bill introduced to require emergency relief wells;
Senate - bill introduced to require containment plans for offshore leases;
House - hearing on MMS regulatory activity;
House - hearing on the role of BP in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill;
House - hearing on foreign vessel operations in US EEZ;