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Suits by or Against The United States

Suits can be initiated by or against the U.S. over maritime actions pursuant to Suits in Admiralty Act (SIAA) and Public Vessels Act (PVA).  A narrow waiver of the country’s sovereign immunity for admiralty claims arising from the use of government-owned ships as merchant vessels is provided by the SIAA.  SIAA expanded the rights of injured persons on or by the vessels of the U.S. without subjecting its vessels to the inconvenience, expense, and delay resulting from attachment.  If the vessel is in a port of the U.S. or one of her possessions at the time of the filing, it would be sufficient for the admiralty court to have jurisdiction of a suit in personam.  A complainant of a suit under SIAA enjoys similar rights as against a private party.  The government is entitled to all limitations of liability available to private vessel owners.  SIAA has been enacted to protect the sovereignty of the country and provides exemptions from admiralty suits in certain maritime cases.  However, this exemption does not extend to actions in rem against the vessels of the U.S. or its agencies.  Regarding actions in rem, the courts will have the authority to pronounce judgments on principles of proceedings in rem, but the vessel shall be exempted from arrest or seizure.  Suits against the U.S. can be initiated for admiralty causes only by strictly satisfying the conditions prescribed by SIAA, and PVA.  A claim arising out of allegedly negligent performance of a search of a vessel by the U.S. Customs Service and Coast Guard will be disallowed by applying the discretionary-function exception to the waiver of U.S. sovereign immunity found in the Suits in Admiralty Act.  The Customs Service derives its authority to board and search a vessel falls within the agency’s discretion.  The manner in which search has to be conducted also falls within the scope of discretionary-function exception.

The PVA permits legal action against the U.S. for damages caused by a public vessel of the U.S., and for compensation for towage and salvage services, including contract salvage, rendered to a public vessel of the U.S.  A suit filed under the Public Vessels Act is carried out according to the principles of an action in rem if it could be inferred that an action in rem might have been maintained if the vessel or cargo was privately owned and possessed.  The PVA shall be applicable only in cases of injury occurring while employed by the government or on board a government-owned or government-operated vessel.  According to PVA, suit may be maintained in actions involving foreign owners of damaged vessels only in cases where an American national could sue under the same circumstances in the country of the claimant.  The act provides that in actions involving foreign owners of damaged vessels, suit may be maintained only in cases where an American national could sue under the same circumstances in the country of the claimant.

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