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
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
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
McFaddon and Greetham weren't
totally without options. They could have gone to France and tried suing
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.