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Public Vessels Act

The Public Vessels Act (PVA) is a federal law that waives sovereign immunity and allows civil lawsuits, in personam, against the United States when damages are caused by a U.S. public vessel (46 U.S.C. Chapter 311). A public vessel is one owned or chartered and operated by the U.S. government that is not used for commercial service (46 U.S.C. § 2101). If a private contractor that was hired by the U.S. to use one of their own vessels for a specific public service, then the PVA applies. Along with damages, a plaintiff may also receive compensation for salvage services and towage. Typically, the vessels involved in such suits are Coast Guard, firefighting, public transportation and marine or wildlife conservation vessels.

A suit must be filed in the federal district court where the vessel or its’ cargo is found. If the vessel or cargo is found outside U.S. territorial waters, the suit may be brought in the federal district court where the plaintiff lives or has an office.  When the plaintiff (or none of the plaintiffs) does not live or have an office in America, the suit may be brought in any district court.  An officer or crew member serving on a public vessel cannot be subpoenaed without consent from the vessel’s commanding officer at the time the subpoena is issued. The Secretary for the department that had control of the vessel when the incident occurred may also give consent. There is a two-year statute of limitations on bringing a suit under the Vessels Act based on the date the accident happened. The interest provision of the Act says that interest does not include the period of time before the date of judgment unless there is a contract that does provide for interest.

The Public Vessels Act states that the U.S. is allowed all the limitations and exemptions of liability given by law to the operators, charterers, owners, or agents of vessels. A foreign national may not bring a suit unless the government of the foreign national would allow a U.S. national to bring a suit under the same circumstances in their country. For an example of the reciprocity provision, see United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp., 425 U.S. 164 (1976). Finally, under the PVA, all the exemptions and limitations of liability accorded by law to the operators, agents, charterers, or owners of vessels are granted to the United States.

Public Vessels Act
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