A recent salvage case illustrates that all the pieces of the salvage puzzle have to fit together in order to qualify for an award. If you have any sea time, you could probably come up with the elements supporting a salvage claim yourself. But, by way of refresher, and aside from rendering a beneficial service to a vessel in peril, the service must have been voluntary. You'd think that a wilting lily of a word like "voluntary" wouldn't pose much problem, but it does.
That word voluntary is what tripped up an otherwise fine-looking salvage claim recently involving two workers aboard a semi-submersible drilling platform. These two workers pursued a salvage claim for services rendered to the platform following Hurricane Katrina. (Yes, I know what you're thinking: "If they're the platform's crew, how come they can seek a salvage claim?" Trust me, under certain circumstances, crewmembers can in fact do so.) At any rate, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sank their salvage claim when it concluded that the two workers assisted the platform with the expectation that they would get paid whether or not they were successful. It's that factual finding that there was a binding agreement "to pay at all events" that upended the salvage claim because the element of voluntariness was lost.
Ok, so there was no award, but the case still has a salvageable lesson for the maritime sector. Litigation often arises as a result of misplaced expectations. Here, the platform apparently did not expect the two workers would seek salvage rights. On the other hand, the two workers presumably perceived themselves entitled to salvage rights. As hard as it is, taking the time to level the seas and make sure everyone understands where everyone is coming from can sometimes avoid downstream disputes. This isn't just the case with salvage, it can come into play in situations involving charters, towage contracts, you name it.
The bottom line is that in lean times like these, it pays to consider what steps you're taking. As any salvor knows, take time to analyze a scene before rushing forward or, as a landlubber might translate: "Only fools rush in."
By John Fulweiler