Actions in rem are prosecuted to enforce a right to things arrested to perfect a maritime privilege or lien attaching to a vessel or cargo or both, and in which the thing to be made responsible is proceeded against as the real party.[i] However, actions in personam are those in which an individual is charged personally in respect to some matter of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.[ii]
In Nehring v. S.S. M/V Point Vail, 901 F.2d 1044 (11th Cir. Fla. 1990), the court held that a valid in rem maritime claim carries the right to satisfaction from the vessel, since the claim constitutes a lien. By contrast, an in personam maritime claim carries no such right. Process in rem is founded on a right in the thing, and the object of the process is to obtain the thing itself, or a satisfaction out of it, for some claim resting on a real or quasi proprietary right in it.[iii]
Although in many cases admiralty proceedings are in personam, proceedings in rem are a prominent and distinguishing feature of admiralty practice.[iv] In some cases the libelant may sue either in rem or in personam.[v] Moreover, there may be proceedings both in rem and in personam.[vi] A proceeding in personam may be converted into one in rem.[vii] Also, a suit in rem may be converted into a suit in personam by amendment, without any further service of process and without the claimant’s consent.[viii]
Generally, actions for breach of maritime contracts and actions based on maritime torts give rise to maritime liens which can be enforced by an action in rem.[ix] Actions in rem can be initiated in claims arising from a contract of affreightment, claims for materials, supplies, or repairs furnished a ship, general average claims, salvage claims, seaman’s claims for wages, or claims arising from any maritime tort, including a cause of action for personal injury.
An in rem suit in an admiralty action should be initiated in the district where the vessel or cargo or tangible property is located. However, if the vessel or cargo or tangible property cannot be found there, a complaint can be filed in any district of the U.S. alleging that the vessel, cargo, or tangible property is located within the district during pendency of the action. A court will not acquire admiralty jurisdiction until the vessel or cargo or tangible property is located within that district.
Even though foreign substantive law is applicable in U.S admiralty court, a cause of action enforced by a proceeding in rem is a procedural matter and therefore is determined by the law of the jurisdiction where the action is brought.[x]
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.[xi] The procedural rules applicable in admiralty law prescribe that in order to initiate an action in rem, the property (i.e.; 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.[xii]
In admiralty law, in order to initiate an action in rem, a maritime lien should exist.[xiii] In the case of a maritime contract as well as maritime tort, if there is no lien attached on a ship, no action in rem can result.[xiv] However, when an action is of maritime nature and is for recovery of possession of a property, an action in rem can be instituted even if there is no lien over the property.[xv]
[i] The Kongsli, 252 F. 267, 270 (D. Me. 1918)
[iii] The Maggie Hammond, 76 U.S. 435 (U.S. 1870)
[iv] Mangone v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc, 152 F. Supp. 848 (E.D. N.Y. 1957)
[v] New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants’ Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. 344 (U.S. 1848)
[vi] The Isonomia, 285 F. 516 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1922)
[vii] Copp v. De Castro & Donner Sugar Refining Co., 1875 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122 (E.D.N.Y. 1875)
[viii] The Monte A., 12 F. 331, 335 (D.N.Y. 1882)
[ix] The Snug Harbor, 283 F. 1015 (D. Va. 1922)
[x] The Belgenland, 114 U.S. 355 (U.S. 1885)
[xi] The Rosemary, 23 F.2d 103 (D.N.J. 1927)
[xii] Criscuolo v. Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co., 84 F.2d 273 (9th Cir. Cal. 1936)
[xiii] The Young Mechanic, 30 F. Cas. 873 (C.C.D. Me. 1855)
[xiv] “sabine”, 101 U.S. 384 (U.S. 1880)
[xv]Korthinos v. The Niarchos, 175 F.2d 730 (4th Cir. Va. 1949)