United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp.
425 U.S. 164 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp., 425 U.S. 164 (1976)

United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp.

No. 74-869

Argued November 3, 1975

Decided March 30, 1976

425 U.S. 164

Syllabus

Prior to 1960, the Suits in Admiralty Act authorized suit against the United States in cases involving vessels owned by, possessed by, or operated by or for the United States, if such suit could have been maintained had the vessel been a private one, and provided further that such vessel was employed as a merchant vessel. In 1960, Congress amended the Act by deleting.the latter proviso. The Public Vessels Act authorizes suit against the United States in cases involving "a public vessel of the United States," but bars such a suit by a foreign national unless it appears that his government allows a United States national to sue in its courts under similar circumstances. Respondent, a Philippine corporation, alleging jurisdiction under both Acts, sued the United States to recover damages resulting from the sinking of its fishing vessel after a collision with a United States naval destroyer. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that, since the destroyer was a "public vessel of the United States," the suit was governed by the Public Vessels Act, that therefore respondent was subject to that Act's reciprocity provision, and that, since there was no such reciprocity, the suit was barred. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the suit, although involving a public vessel, was maintainable under the Suits in Admiralty Act, as amended in 1960 to delete the "employed as a merchant vessel" proviso, free from the restrictions, including the reciprocity requirement, imposed by the Public Vessels Act.

Held: Claims within the scope of the Public Vessels Act remain subject to its terms after the 1960 amendment to the Suits in Admiralty Act, and, since respondent's claim falls within the Public Vessels Act, the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that that Act's reciprocity provision did not apply. Pp. 425 U. S. 166-182.

(a) The Court of Appeals' interpretation of the 1960 amendment to the Suits in Admiralty Act would render the Public Vessels Act's restrictions ineffectual, and would effectively nullify

Page 425 U. S. 165

specific congressional policy judgments made when the latter Act was enacted, by enabling litigants to bring suits previously subject to that Act under the Suits in Admiralty Act. Pp. 425 U. S. 166-169.

(b) The legislative histories of the Public Vessels Act, the Suits in Admiralty Act, and, in particular, the 1960 amendment to the latter, indicate clearly that Congress did not intend to authorize the wholesale evasion of the restrictions specifically imposed by the Public Vessels Act on suits for damages caused by public vessels, but deleted the "employed as a merchant vessel" proviso merely to remove uncertainty a to the proper forum in which to bring a maritime claim against the United States, especially a contract claim, where it had been uncertain whether it should be brought on the admiralty side of a district court under the Suits in Admiralty Act or Public Vessels Act or in the Court of Claims under the Tucker Act. Pp. 425 U. S. 170-181.

499 F.2d 774, reversed and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 425 U. S. 182. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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