Injuries On or Around U.S. Government-Owned Vessels

Maritime law has historically provided a number of ways to recover damages for injuries or deaths due to negligence.

In certain situations, maritime lawsuits can even be filed against the U.S. government. It may also be possible to receive compensation for injury to or death of federal employees on U.S. government vessels, regardless of whether the government contributed to the injury or death.

Below, we summarize a few of the major laws that can apply to a maritime personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit that involves a U.S. government vessel. However, the laws surrounding U.S. government vessel-related injuries and death are very complicated. So if you or a loved one have been injured and a U.S. government vessel was involved, an experienced maritime attorney can help you make sense of these complex laws.

The early years of maritime injury and death lawsuits against the U.S. government

People injured on or around U.S. government vessels didn't always have clear legal recourse.

In the early 1900s, the doctrine of "sovereign immunity" held that the U.S. government could not commit a legal wrong, and therefore the government was immune from maritime lawsuits. This meant that the U.S. government could sue a private vessel owner for damages that occurred due to the private vessel owners' negligence. However, a private vessel owner could not sue the U.S. government when the situation was reversed.

Congress eventually passed several laws to address this disparity.

Compensation for injuries or death related to U.S. government vessels is now covered by several different laws, including:

  • The Suits in Admiralty Act of 1920
  • The Public Vessels Act of 1925
  • The Federal Employees Compensation Act of 1916

It is important to note that these laws apply only to civilian employees working on or around U.S. government vessels, rather than to active members of the Armed Forces.

Injuries or death due to U.S. government vessels: the Public Vessels Act

In 1925, Congress passed the Public Vessels Act, which partially waives the government's sovereign immunity in certain maritime law cases. The PVA allows someone to pursue legal action against the U.S. government for "damages caused by a public vessel of the United States."

The requirements for lawsuits under the Public Vessels Act are similar to other personal injury and death lawsuits under general maritime law. For example, in order to sue the U.S. government under the PVA for injury or death, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the U.S. government's negligence contributed to the injury or death.

However, the Public Vessels Act differs from other maritime laws in a few important ways:

  • Statute of Limitations. If you think you may have a claim under the Public Vessels Act, it is important to act quickly. Claims made under the Public Vessels Act must be filed within two years after the injury or death occurs. This is shorter than the three-year period for filing lawsuits under general maritime law and the Jones Act.
  • Limitations on lawsuits by foreign nationals. Citizens of other countries are only permitted to file lawsuits under the PVA if a U.S. citizen would be able to file a lawsuit for the same reasons under the laws of the non-U.S. citizen's country. This is known as the reciprocity requirement.
  • Varying definitions of damages. While the Supreme Court has decided that the PVA permits suits for wrongful death and damages, lower courts are divided on what exactly that means. This means that decisions regarding what type of damages can be awarded in PVA claims may vary based on geographic location.
  • Discretionary function exemption. If an injury or death occurs due to a government employee's actions that had "an element of judgment or choice," (meaning the "right" action was not clearly described in federal law or policy), it may not be possible to file a lawsuit under the PVA.

Other options for injuries related to public vessels: the Suits in Admiralty Act (SAA)

The PVA applies specifically to damages caused by public vessels. The SSA partially waives the U.S. government's sovereign immunity in situations that aren't covered by the PVA. The SAA permits civil lawsuits against the United States when a similar maritime law action could be filed if "a private person or property were involved."

The Suits in Admiralty Act (SAA) of 1925 is often described as a "sister act" to the PVA. It can be challenging to determine which law applies to a specific case of maritime injury or wrongful death.

Subsequent legal decisions have attempted to clarify which law applies to a particular situation. In United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp (1976), for example, the Supreme Court held that all lawsuits relating to U.S. government public vessels must be filed under the Public Vessels Act, not the Suits in Admiralty Act.

As with PVA lawsuits, claims under the Public Vessels Act must be filed within two years, and they are not entitled to a jury trial.

Injuries to federal workers: the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA)

The Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) was passed in 1916 to provide compensation to injured federal workers and to the families of deceased federal workers.

FECA is a type of workers' compensation program. Unlike other maritime law, personal injury or wrongful death claims--such as Jones Act claims--it is not necessary to prove that a federal employer was negligent before a federal employee can receive payments under FECA for injuries that occur on or around a U.S. government vessel. In this way, FECA is similar to the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, which provides benefits for injuries and death of longshoremen and other harbor workers, regardless of fault.

For federal employees, FECA is the exclusive method of recovery against the U.S. government for injury or death. In most cases where a claim can be filed under FECA, federal employees or their surviving relatives are prevented from making other admiralty law claims, such as claims under the Public Vessels Act.

FECA specifically says that its exclusivity rule "does not apply to a master or member of a crew or vessel." However, subsequent judicial decisions have clarified that, in practice, FECA's exclusivity rule does apply to civilian seaman working on public vessels. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Johansen v. United States (1952) that FECA was "the exclusive remedy for civilian seamen on public vessels."

In Lockheed Aircraft Corp. v. United States (1983), the Supreme Court considered the issue again, stating that "Under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, a federal employee may not bring a…suit against the Government on the basis of a work-related injury."

Federal employees, including seamen, need to understand their rights under a variety of laws, including FECA, the PVA and the SAA. These rights differ in important ways from the rights of those who are injured on private, non-government vessels.

Protecting your rights if you are injured on or near a U.S. government vessel

If you have been injured on or around a vessel owned or operated by the U.S. government, it is important to understand the laws that apply to your situation. Each of these laws have different filing processes, rules and timelines for claims. They also provide different options for compensation.

The information above summarizes the major laws governing personal injury and death claims against the U.S. government. An experienced maritime lawyer can provide additional information to help you understand the laws that apply to your specific situation.

Gilman & Bedigian will fight tirelessly to help you recover any compensation that may be available to you under these laws. Contact Gilman & Bedigian Trial Attorneys online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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