Enacted in 1920, the Suits in Admiralty Act (SIAA) provides for a narrow waiver of the country’s sovereign immunity for admiralty claims arising from the use of government-owned ships as merchant vessels. The purpose of enactment of SIAA was to expand 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. In order for the admiralty court to have jurisdiction of a suit in personam on the principles of proceedings in rem under SIAA, the vessel need not be in the district where the complaint is filed. The vessel needs only to be in a US port at the time of the filing for the admiralty court to have jurisdiction of a suit in persona
The general principles of law and rules of practice in causes between private parties are to be invoked to hear and determine suits filed under SIAA. Therefore 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.
In Kelly v. United States, 531 F.2d 1144 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1976), a suit was brought by plaintiff estate administrator on behalf of the deceased against the US government, claiming that the US Coast Guard negligently failed to rescue the deceased after his sailboat capsized and in causing other would-be rescuers not to come to his aid. The complaint was dismissed by the district court stating that the suit lacked subject matter jurisdiction since it was brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), where it was exclusively cognizable under the Suits in Admiralty Act (SIAA), and was barred by the two-year statutory limitation period. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision and held that the claim should have been brought under the SIAA.