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Maritime Law Of Salvage . . . What it takes to make a claim

You can lose faith sometimes, but don't lose faith in the maritime law of salvage. This is an awesome area of saltwater law and it'll have the crewmember and vessel owner making money for saving vessels in peril. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (think the appellate court of the Southeast United States) just highlighted with canary yellow marker what entitles you to make a salvage claim. And by doing so, the court refastened the established elements of maritime salvage law. Don't leave money on the galley table because you don't understand the pieces you need to build a claim of salvage.

The appeal was brought by a salvor who'd rendered services to a yacht big enough for most of us to have gathered aboard. The yacht was adrift as a result of its shaft divorcing from the gear box, all while seawater rushed in to join the party. A distress call was issued, the salvor responded, patched and moved the yacht to the safety of a dock. When the matter went to trial, the salvor lost because the trial court applied the ruling of an older case. This older case stated that "maritime peril" must be coupled with a showing that the yacht could not have been rescued without the salvor's assistance. That's wrong. A salvor only needs to show a vessel is in actual or imminent danger to establish the first element of a salvage claim. (The other two ingredients are "voluntariness" (meaning you didn't have some preexisting obligation to assist) and "success" (meaning you saved or contributed to saving the vessel)).

With the wrong law having been lathered across its claim, the salvor got its appeal underway and in November of last year, the Eleventh Circuit correctly ruled that "maritime peril" stands alone. That is, a salvor does NOT need to show that the salved vessel was a necessary element to the vessel's rescue. Instead, the salvor only has to show that the vessel was under a "maritime peril." Fire, groundings and flooding with seawater are pretty classic examples of maritime peril.

After that jump shot, the Eleventh Circuit didn't just walk off the court. Instead, it went on to remind its audience that the public policy of salvage is to encourage mariners to come to the aid of vessels in distress and "to do so before it is a do-or-die wager with high risks." I read that as the Court wants to keep the threshold for proving a salvage nice and low (right where it is) because salvage should be encouraged, not lassoed as so many interests seem to want to do.

Salvage saves money for vessel owners, insurers and cargo interests. Yes, salvage claims can be large, but why shouldn't they be? The salvor is risking its life and property to come to the aid of someone else's property. That voluntary effort shouldn't be expected or treated casually, it should be encouraged with liberal salvage awards designed to encourage others to act in a similar fashion.

And, finally, there's a funny personal wrinkle to this Eleventh Circuit decision. I went to law school in Little Rock, Arkansas. My professor in several courses was a well-known expert in property and trusts with a wry personality and an ocean's depth worth of intellectual wealth. His wife was a federal judge in Arkansas and she was part of the panel deciding this salvage decision as a visiting judge on the Eleventh Circuit. Small world.

Categories: Towing & Salvage

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