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A Guide to the Public Vessels Act

June 30, 2022

A Guide to the Public Vessels Act

Negligence in the operation of a government-owned vessel may lead to an accident that causes injury and damage for other innocent parties. Historically, parties who were harmed by the negligence of the government could not pursue compensation due to the government’s sovereign immunity, which is an absolute prohibition on filing a civil lawsuit for monetary compensation from the government. However, over the years, the federal government has passed statutes that waive the government’s sovereign immunity for certain civil suits. The Public Vessels Act is one such statute. If you have been injured in an accident on or involving a government-owned vessel, it is critical that you understand your legal rights under the Public Vessels Act. A maritime accident attorney can go over your legal options with you and advocate on your behalf to fight for the fair and full compensation you may be entitled to under the law. 

What Is the Public Vessels Act?

The Public Vessels Act (PVA) is a federal statute that authorizes lawsuits to be filed against the federal government for compensation for injuries and damages that are caused by the negligence of the federal government or its officials and employees while working on or being contracted to a vessel owned, operated, or chartered by the U.S. government, or for compensation for towing and salvage services rendered to a government vessel. The PVA therefore serves as a waiver of the federal government’s sovereign immunity from lawsuits. This allows private persons and entities to seek financial recovery for harm and loss caused by a public vessel.

When Does the Public Vessels Act Apply?

The PVA applies to injury and damage cases that arise:

  • In the course of employment by the federal government
  • On board a government-operated vessel
  • On board a government-owned vessel that is operated by a private contractor

Both U.S. citizens/permanent residents and non-U.S. citizens/residents can file suit under the PVA. However, a plaintiff who is a citizen and resident of a foreign country can only file under the PVA if the laws of their country would allow a U.S. citizen to file an identical suit against their country’s government. 

To succeed in a PVA lawsuit, you will need to show that injury or damage was caused by the negligence, recklessness, or willful acts of the government or a government employee acting in the course of their duties. In addition, you will need to show that the acts that led to your injury or loss did not involve a government official’s exercise of their judgment. 

What Compensation Can You Seek Under the Public Vessels Act?

In a lawsuit under the Public Vessels, you may be entitled to obtain compensation for losses you incurred due to an accident on or caused by a government-owned vessel. This includes financial recovery for things like:

  • Damage to or destruction of personal property in the accident
  • Medical expenses to treat injuries suffered in an accident, including hospital care, surgeries, medications, physical/occupational therapy, or long-term home health or institutional care
  • Loss of wages or income if an injured party misses time from work or experiences a reduction in income after taking on a modified duty role during their recovery from injury
  • Loss of future earning capacity and job benefits if injuries result in permanent disability from gainful employment
  • Physical pain and emotional distress
  • Loss of quality of life due to disfigurement/scarring, permanent disability, or reduced life expectancy caused by injuries

How Long Do You Have to File a Lawsuit Under the Public Vessels Act?

Under the statute of limitations, a lawsuit filed pursuant to the Public Vessels Act must be filed within two years of the accident or incident that led to your injuries or damages. The statute of limitations for PVA claims is often an issue for injured seamen, who may assume that their claims arise under the Jones Act, which has a three-year limitations period.

In addition to the statute of limitations, when pursuing a tort claim against the federal government you will need to comply with the notice requirements of the Federal Tort Claims Act. The FTCA requires you to give notice of your claim to the relevant agency within two years of the date that your claim arose. However, the government then has six months to investigate your claim and either agree to compensate you or deny your claim. This six-month period must either expire or the government must deny your claim before you can file a lawsuit. Therefore, you must send your FTCA notice within 18 months of the accident, since your lawsuit still must be filed within the two-year statute of limitations even if the government is still evaluating your FTCA notice. 

How Can a Maritime Accident Lawyer Help with a Claim under the Public Vessels Act?

If you were injured aboard or by a government vessel, a maritime accident attorney can help you pursue a claim for compensation under the Public Vessels Act by:

  • Investigating the accident or incident that caused your injuries to secure evidence needed to show how negligence by government employees or contractors caused the accident
  • Documenting your injuries and losses, including calculating future anticipated financial expenses and needs
  • Explaining your legal rights and options under the PVA to you so that you know what to expect throughout your case
  • Ensuring that your claims against the government are timely filed, including comply with notice requirements under the Federal Tort Claims Act
  • Pursuing full and fair compensation for you, whether through a negotiated settlement with the government or by taking your claims to federal court and advocating on your behalf in court and at trial to fight for a judgment in your favor

Contact a Maritime Law Attorney from The Law Offices of Preston Easley for a Free Consultation to Discuss Your Rights Under the Public Vessels Act

If you were injured by a U.S. government vessel, contact The Law Offices of Preston Easley for a free, no-obligation case evaluation. A maritime accident attorney from our firm can help you understand your legal options and learn more about the process of recovering compensation for your losses.

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Preston Easley is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He served five years of active duty as a Naval officer — three years as a deck officer on a fast frigate and two years as a patrol boat skipper. Mr. Easley also served aboard a tank landing ship in the reserves.

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