The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon
11 U.S. 116 (1812)

  • McFaddon and Greetham owned a schooner named 'Exchange'. While sailing in international waters, the ship was commandeered by the French Navy and turned into a French warcraft.
    • The French Navy did not bother to ask McFaddon and Greetham's permission or pay them any money for their ship.
  • Later, the Exchange (now renamed the Balaou and flying a French flag) docked in Philadelphia. McFaddon and Greetham sued in US court for return of their ship.
  • The Trial Court found for the French, McFaddon and Greetham appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The French appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found that US courts did not have jurisdiction over foreign-flagged vessels in US ports.
    • The US Supreme Court found that US courts had no jurisdiction over foreign governments because of sovereign immunity.
    • The Court found that a foreign warship is covered by sovereign immunity.
      • The Court found that a warship "constitutes a part of the military force of her nation; acts under the immediate and direct command of the sovereign; is employed by him in national objects. He has many and powerful motives for preventing those objects from being defeated by the interference of a foreign state. Such interference cannot take place without affecting his power and his dignity. The implied license therefore under which such vessel enters a friendly port, may reasonably be construed, and it seems to the Court, ought to be construed, as containing an exemption from the jurisdiction of the sovereign, within whose territory she claims the rites of hospitality."
    • The Court limited this decision to warships (although that was later extended to all ships and property owned by foreign governments). However, the Court noted that sovereign immunity does not apply to foreign ships owned by private foreign citizens.
  • McFaddon and Greetham weren't totally without options. They could have gone to France and tried suing there.
    • But it would be difficult to win in a French court.
  • One unstated factor for the Court's decision was that at the time this case was decided, the US was at war (War of 1812), and the French was an ally of the US.
  • The case is often cited as representative of the traditional theory (or classical view) of sovereign immunity.
    • As opposed to the more modern restrictive view of sovereign immunity which argues that sovereign immunity only applies to claims based on public acts, not commercial or private acts.