Generally, American admiralty courts will not provide a remedy under American admiralty law to subjects of a foreign country if the foreign court is not empowered to give the same remedy to United States citizens in similar cases. However, in some cases, the American admiralty courts may provide remedies to foreign nationals in the interest of justice even in the absence of reciprocity. Thus, a claimant who files a case in a United States District Court can secure the same lien on a ship as if the action had been filed in the jurisdiction where the wrongful act was committed.[i]
For instance, in United Continental Tuna Corp. v. United States, 499 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. Cal. 1974), a fishing vessel belonging to a Philippines Corporation was destroyed in a collision. The corporation filed an action against the United States to recover its loss under the Suits in Admiralty Act (SIA), 46 U.S.C.S. § 741 et seq., and the Public Vessels Act (PVA) 46 U.S.C.S. § 781 et seq. The reciprocity provision in the PVA provides that “no suit may be brought by a national of a foreign government unless it appears to the satisfaction of the court in which the suit is brought that such government, under similar circumstances, allows nationals of the United States to sue in its courts.”[ii]
The district court granted the United States’ motion for summary judgment based upon the reciprocity provision of the PVA.[iii] However, the appellate court reversed the dismissal of the claims under the Suits in Admiralty Act and the Public Vessels Act on the ground that the amendments to the acts strongly suggested that Congress has waived its sovereign immunity to almost unlimited liabilities to private parties.
[i] The Maggie Hammond, 76 U.S. 435, 456 (U.S. 1870), The Havana, 1858 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51 (D. Mass. 1858)
[ii] 46 U.S.C.S. § 785