Public Vessels Act (PVA)

Federal Accountability for Maritime Injury or Death

Prior to action by Congress, the federal government of the United States operated with sovereign immunity when it came to injury suits regarding public vessels. This means the United States was not and could not be held liable for any damages caused by vessels being used for public service.

This changed with the enactment of the Public Vessels Act (PVA), which allows for the U.S. government to be held liable for damages caused by such vessels. This includes personal injuries, wrongful deaths, or property damage. The PVA expanded upon the Suits in Admiralty Act (SIAA), which was first enacted in 1920 to permit individuals to sue the U.S. government when a government-owned vessel was involved in an accident or other incident that caused them harm. 

The PVA applies to vessels owned (but not necessarily operated) by the U.S. government. It generally applies to civilian personnel on U.S.-owned vessels but not to seamen serving in the U.S. Navy. Citizens and non-citizens who are injured on a government-owned vessel in national or international waters may be covered by the PVA.

What Is a Public Vessel?

Under the Public Vessels Act, a "public vessel" refers to any vessel owned or operated by the United States government and used for a public purpose. This definition distinguishes public vessels from merchant vessels that the government might own or operate but that are engaged in commercial activities.

Vessels that fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Vessels Act include:

A government-owned vessel operated by a private contractor is still considered a public vessel for purposes of this Act. The statute of limitations under the Public Vessel Act is two years from the date of accident, and even if the injured seaman worked for a third-party contractor, the claims are brought against the United States of America.

Fault & Compensation Under the Public Vessels Act

The PVA is fault-based, meaning it allows claims against the U.S. government based on negligence or fault. This means that if a public vessel operated negligently or in some faulty manner that caused injury or death, the injured party or their family can bring a claim against the U.S. government.

Like other maritime injury claims, the issue of fault can be based on the vessel's unseaworthiness, negligence of its crew, failure to maintain safe equipment or facilities, or other acts or omissions that lead to an injury or death. The plaintiff (the person bringing the claim against the government) will need to prove fault in order to secure compensation under the Public Vessels Act.

If a claim under the Public Vessels Act is successful, the injured party or their beneficiaries can recover damages similar to other maritime injury claims. These can include medical expenses, lost wages and earning capacity, pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and wrongful death benefits. The type and amount of compensation will vary depending on a number of factors, so it is important to discuss your unique situation with your attorney.

Helping U.S. Citizens & Foreign Nationals

When our firm receives calls from offshore workers injured while working aboard a government-owned vessel, as experienced offshore injury lawyers, we know that cases like these may fall under the Public Vessels Act. If you were injured because of a public vessel, the Public Vessels Act provides you with the right to seek damages from the United States. The Act generally applies to all persons and even some foreign nationals. In order for a foreign national to legally seek damages from the United States through the U.S. district court system, his or her nation of residence must allow for a U.S. national to seek the same legal remedy in its courts under similar circumstances.

To learn more about the Public Vessels Act and to discuss a specific incident with us, call (888) 346-5024. Your consultation is free.

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