An action in rem can be directed only towards a specific piece of property. Thus, in admiralty law, an action in rem will be initiated against a ship not its owner.
U.S. federal courts have original jurisdiction over admiralty matters. A federal district court has jurisdiction in rem in an admiralty action only when the ship is within the territorial jurisdiction of the court at the time the case is initiated.[i] The procedural rules applicable in admiralty law prescribe that in order to initiate an action in rem, the property (ie; the ship) should be situated in that district during the pendency of the action.
When a person has a maritime lien over a ship and/or its cargo, it can be arrested to enforce the maritime claims over the ship and/or its cargo. Generally, for a district court to have jurisdiction, a ship and/or its cargo should be arrested in that district and should be under the control of the court.[ii] The arrest should be made under the process of the court. All procedures prescribed for a valid arrest should be followed while making the arrest.
However, if the opposing parties file a stipulation, or deposits money in the court, the ship and/or its cargo can be released. For jurisdictional purpose the stipulation or money can be substituted for the ship and/or its cargo. A stipulation is an agreement between opposing parties in a pending action. Likewise, when a ship arrested is sold under an order of a court the action in rem can continue against the proceeds from the sale.
When a ship and/or its cargo is arrested and brought under the jurisdiction of a court, an accident that occurs later or if the ship is fraudulently removed from the territorial ambit of the court, the court’s jurisdiction will not be lost. The officials authorized by the court can seize the ship as soon as it reaches the territory again. However, if a ship is voluntarily abandoned by its owner a court will lose the power of jurisdiction gained by its seizure. Any defect in proceedings due to the ship being out of the territorial ambit of a court can be waived by the claimant in admiralty cases.[iii]
However, with regard to public vessels, the general rule that to complete a court’s jurisdiction the ship should be arrested does not apply. The Suits in Admiralty Act (Act) provides remedy for maritime actions against the U.S. vessels. According to the Act, public vessels are exempted from arrest and seizure.[iv]
[i] The Rosemary, 23 F.2d 103 (D.N.J. 1927)
[ii] Criscuolo v. Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co., 84 F.2d 273 (9th Cir. Cal. 1936)
[iii] Internatio-Rotterdam, Inc. v. The Karachi, 122 F. Supp. 37 (D. Md. 1954)
[iv] The John McCraken, 145 F. 705 (D. Or. 1906)