World Map Showing the International WatersMaritime work sends thousands of employees around the globe every year, working and living on freighters, container ships, fishing boats, tankers, and other vessels. When an injury occurs, different compensation laws may apply depending on the status of the person injured, the circumstances surrounding the injury—and of course, where the injury took place. As a result, it is vital that maritime employees who are hurt in international waters know their rights, including who may be liable for the costs of their injuries.

What Are International Waters?

International waters, often referred to as “the open sea” or “high seas,” are any waterways that are located outside any nation’s territorial waters. Since no country ‘owns’ these waters, jurisdiction usually depends on the nationality of the vessel or the seaman involved in the injury.

A few facts that can help workers understand injuries on international waters:

  • Under U.S. maritime law, the term “international waters” may be applied to any body of water that is outside the jurisdiction of the United States.
  • Active travels through international waters are often referred to as “foreign voyages.”
  • While the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Indian Ocean are generally considered international waters, the term can apply to any area sufficiently far enough from another country’s coastline.
  • In general, international waterways are located between two different nations and begin roughly 12 nautical miles away from the marked territorial waters of any nation.
  • Many types of waterways can be considered international waters, including oceans, seas, and even lakes within the borders of other countries.

Who Provides Compensation to Workers Injured in International Waters?

In the majority of cases, legal jurisdiction for an injury case in international waters falls under the country who owns or operates the vessel. A vessel flying the United States flag is governed by United States maritime law, regardless of where the vessel is navigating to or returning from. As a result, seamen and other maritime employees who are injured on U.S. vessels are protected under a variety of federal compensation statutes.

If you are hurt or fall ill in foreign waters, your losses may be covered by:

  • The Jones Act. Any worker who spends most of his or her time on navigable waters in the service of a particular vessel qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act, entitling him or her to maintenance and cure benefits for an injury. The Jones Act does require an injured maritime worker to establish that an employer’s negligence caused his or her injuries, but the burden of proof is much lighter than in other injury cases. In addition, the Jones Act also allows victims to pursue a negligence claim against the shipowner for injury damages in addition to maintenance and cure, including lost wages and lost earning capacity, past and future medical expenses, and physical or mental suffering.
  • The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). While the Jones Act applies only to certain classes of maritime employees, the LHWCA covers any worker who is employed in a maritime occupation. This can include longshoremen, stevedores, harbor workers, shipbuilders, divers, ship breakers, and mechanics. This Act allows injured employees to be paid 66 2/3% of their weekly wages during their recoveries and may collect compensation for permanent disabilities related to the injury (such as the loss of a limb) as a replacement for lost earning capacity. The LHWCA also pays death benefits to surviving spouses at the rate of 50% of the worker’s pay if an employee suffers fatal injuries.
  • The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). This doctrine provides payment to surviving relatives when a maritime worker is killed by faulty equipment, unseaworthy vessels, or other forms of shipowner negligence that occur more than three miles from a U.S. shore.

Since the laws governing international voyages can be complex, it is always best to speak with a maritime lawyer as soon as possible after an injury at sea. If you or a loved one has been injured while performing maritime work, our attorneys can determine who may be liable for your accident and what you are owed under the law. Call (800) 362-9329 today to set up your initial consultation or download your complimentary copy of Are You a Seaman Injured in a Maritime Accident? Know Your Rights today.


Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.