The citation for this case is 74 US [7 Wall.] 152.
In February of 1865 the US Navy captured the steamer Siren in Charleston Harbor, attempting to evade the blockade. A prize master and crew took control of the vessel and sailed it to Boston. En route, they had to put into New York port for coal. As part of their passage into Long Island Sound, they ran into and sank a sloop named the Harper. This sloop was loaded with iron and en route from New York to Providence, Rhode Island. The steamer arrived in Boston and the US filed a libel in prize against her. In April she was condemned as a lawful prize and sold, with the proceeds of the sale deposited in the treasury of the United States. The owners of the Harper and its cargo petitioned for damages sustained in the collision to be paid out of the proceeds of the sale. The District Court found against the Harper’s owners and they appealed to the Supreme Court.
Justice Stephen Field delivered the opinion of the Court. In it, he wrote, “It is a familiar doctrine of the common law that the sovereign cannot be sued in his own courts without his consent. The doctrine rests upon reasons of public policy — the inconvenience and danger which would follow from any different rule. It is obvious that the public service would be hindered and the public safety endangered if the supreme authority could be subjected to suit at the instance of every citizen and consequently controlled in the use and disposition of the means required for the proper administration of the government. The exemption from direct suit is therefore without exception. This doctrine of the common law is equally applicable to the supreme authority of the nation, the United States. They cannot be subjected to legal proceedings at law or in equity without their consent, and whoever institutes such proceedings must bring his case within the authority of some act of Congress. Such is the language of this Court in United States v. Clarke.” [74 US 152, 153-154]
This was a validation of the principle of sovereign immunity, a principle that can be applied in several situations where individuals have claims against the government. Justice Field then delineates an important exception to the principle: “But although direct suits cannot be maintained against the United States or against their property, yet, when the United States institute a suit, they waive their exemption so far as to allow a presentation by the defendant of setoffs, legal and equitable, to the extent of the demand made or property claimed, and when they proceed in rem, they open to consideration all claims and equities in regard to the property libeled. They then stand in such proceedings, with reference to the rights of defendants or claimants, precisely as private suitors, except that they are exempt from costs and from affirmative relief against them beyond the demand or property in controversy. In United States v. Ringgold, a claim of the defendant was allowed as a setoff to the demand of the government. ‘No direct suit,’ said the Court, ‘can be maintained against the United States. But when an action is brought by the United States to recover moneys in the hands of a party who has a legal claim against them, it would be a very rigid principle to deny to him the right of setting up such claim in a court of justice, and turn him round to an application to Congress.’ So in United States v. Macdaniel, to which reference is made in the case cited, the defendant was allowed to set off against the demand of the government a claim for services as agent for the payment of the navy pension fund to which the court held he was equitably entitled. The question, said the Court, was whether the defendant should surrender the money which happened to be in his hands and then petition Congress on the subject, and it was held that the government had no right, legal or equitable, to the money.” [74 US 152, 154-155]
He then addresses the principles above as they applied to this case: “For the damages occasioned by collision of vessels at sea a claim is created against the vessel in fault in favor of the injured party. This claim may be enforced in the admiralty by a proceeding in rem, except where the vessel is the property of the United States. In such case, the claim exists equally as if the vessel belonged to a private citizen, but for reasons of public policy already stated cannot be enforced by direct proceedings against the vessel. It stands in that respect like a claim against the government, incapable of enforcement without its consent and unavailable for any purpose.” [74 US 152, 155]
He then discusses a number of precedents in both English and American law, concluding, “So if property belonging to the government, upon which claims exist, is sold upon judicial decree, and the proceeds are paid into the registry, the court would have jurisdiction to direct the claims to be satisfied out of them. Such decree of sale could only be made upon application of the government, and by its appearance in court, as we have already said, it waives its exemption and submits to the application of the same principles by which justice is administered between private suitors. Now it is a settled principle of admiralty law, that all maritime claims upon the vessel extend equally to the proceeds arising from its sale, and are to be satisfied out of them. Assuming, therefore, that the Siren was in fault, and that by the tort she committed a claim was created against her, we do not perceive any just ground for refusing its satisfaction out of the proceeds of her sale. The government is the actor in the suit for her condemnation. It asks for her sale, and the proceeds coming into the registry of the court, come affected with all the claims which existed upon the vessel created subsequent to her capture. There is no authority, that we are aware of, which would exempt them under these circumstances, because of the exemption of the government from a direct proceeding in rem against the vessel whilst in its custody.” [74 US 152, 159]
He supports that conclusion with other precedents and then tells us, “It does not appear that the court below considered the evidence as to the character and extent of the alleged tort. It appears to have placed its decision entirely upon the legal proposition that the captured vessel was exempt from legal process at the suit of the intervenors and that consequently the proceeds of the vessel could not be subjected to the satisfaction of their claims. We have, however, looked into the evidence, and are satisfied that the collision was the fault of the Siren. It took place in the daytime. The sloop was seen from the steamer in time to avoid her. The steamer was out of the regular track for steamers passing through Hurlgate. The passage is noted for its difficulties and dangers, and, under the laws of New York, pilots are specially commissioned to take vessels through it. The prize master engaged a pilot for the Sound to take the steamer from New York to Boston, but refused to engage a Hurlgate pilot, his reason being to avoid expense. With such a pilot she would have been taken in the regular track of steamers northward of Blackwell’s Island, and so close to Flood Rock as to avoid the sloop, as might easily have been done. We do not think it important to cite from the evidence in vindication of our conclusion, especially as it was not seriously contested on the argument that the Siren was responsible for the collision.” [74 US 152, 162-163]
The Court reversed the District Court’s ruling and remanded the case back to the District Court with instructions to assess damages due to the owners of the Harper and its cargo and pay them from the proceeds of the vessel’s sale prior to distributing proceeds to the crew who captured the vessel.
This case is important for two principles: that of sovereign immunity and also maritime liens.