Maritime Acts Pages – Suits in Admiralty / Public Vessels Act (PVA)

The Suits in Admiralty Act was enacted in 1920 and applies to government-owned ships used in merchant operations. It expanded the rights of those injured on such a vessel or in some way by them. For the law to apply, the vessel in question just needs to be at a U.S. port when a claim is filed; an admiralty court will have jurisdiction if the vessel is not in a specific district at that time.

Passed in 1925, the Public Vessels Act establishes the legal actions for damages caused by a publicly-used vessel. It also permits compensation for towing and salvage of U.S. ships used for public operations. Lawsuits filed under the PVA are possible if an action against property could have taken place even if the vessel/cargo was privately owned. However, the law applies only to injuries involving those employed by the government, or a vessel it owns or operates.

Admiralty Suits Against the U.S.

Private vessels, cargo, or individuals or property can be subjects of a civil action against the United States or a federally owned corporation. A case under this law is not tried with a jury. Remedies provided by this law are exclusive of other actions arising from the same claim or charges against any U.S. employee, officer, or agent responsible for actions/omissions the claim is based on.

Claimants have two years to bring civil action following the cause of action. Cases are heard in the district court where the plaintiff lives or owns a business, or where the vessel or cargo is located. Exemptions from arrest or seizure under the law include ships/cargo owned, operated, or possessed by the U.S. or a corporation owned by the government. This also includes statutes regarding arbitration and settlement, payments, seizure from foreign jurisdictions, and recovery for salvage services.

Provisions of the PVA

The Public Vessels Act allows for civil action against the U.S. for damages a public vessel causes. It also provisions compensation for services related to towage and salvage, including those provided by contractors. The U.S. may also bring an action for damages a private vessel or its owner causes, in which case a counterclaim can be filed against the United States.

For vessels outside territorial waters, the law calls for action in a court within the jurisdiction of the plaintiff’s residence or office, or any district if they don’t reside or work in the country. The PVA also has similar provisions to the Suits in Admiralty Act regarding settlements and payments. Subpoenas can be issued to public vessel crew member or officer only with the consent of the head of a department/establishment in control of a vessel when an incident occurred, or the vessel’s master or commanding officer when it is issued.

Other provisions of the law state that:

  • Unless a court permits it, a foreign national cannot bring a civil action under the PVA.
  • Limitations also include the Act not calling for or creating a lien against a U.S. public vessel.
  • The Attorney General must report all claims settlements directly to Congress. For admiralty claims, reports to Congress (on settlements and arbitration awards) are delivered by the Secretary of a relevant government department, and a government owned corporation’s board of trustees.
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