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Public Vessels Act

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.

The United States as Defendant in a Suit

This changed with the enactment of the Public Vessels Act (PVA), which states that the United States government can be a defendant in a libel suit for damages caused by such vessels. The Public Vessels Act is often discussed alongside another similar act called the Suits in Admiralty Act, which contained the same provisions as the PVA before being amended to apply only to private vessel owners.

Public vessels include any and all vessels owned by or used in the public service of the United States, not including those used for commerce. Public vessel is a term used to differentiate from vessels used for public service of the federal, state, or municipal government and those that are used for recreational purposes.

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

  • Vessels used for wildlife and marine conservation enforcement
  • Firefighting vessels
  • Some Coast Guard vessels
  • Public transportation vessels

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

When our firm receives calls from offshore workers injured while working aboard a government-owned vessel, as experienced maritime trial lawyers, we know that cases like these involve a specific area of maritime law called 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.

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