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A Legal Perspective - A Hurricane and the Law of Salvage

Maritime law is known for some fairly unique and arcane legal concepts not commonly seen in other areas of law. Some of these have their origins in an earlier age of seafaring when vessels powered by sail carried cargoes in wooden barrels. One of these concepts is the law of salvage. The law of salvage on the high seas is based on the philosophy that one who comes to the rescue of another in the face of a maritime peril is entitled to a reward. Through the ages, this reward has come to be understood as a percentage of the vessel and cargo saved. The idea was that running to the assistance of a stricken vessel put your own vessel and crew at risk. Therefore, some sort of incentive was needed above and beyond goodwill. The law of maritime salvage was applied in the aftermath of a 22-foot boat being torn from its berth when Hurricane Matthew made landfall in the Savannah, Georgia area several years ago. The hurricane destroyed the dock and its boatlift, causing the boat to be deposited four houses away from its original location on the Wilmington River. The boat sat partially grounded and surrounded by hurricane debris. Unfortunately, the owners had been forced to evacuate their homes earlier. A company specializing in marine construction, towing, and salvage came to the area afterward and found the boat. Before continuing on with the fate of the boat, it could be worth pointing out that marine salvage is something distinct from marine towing. The distinction is important because if both sides are not on the same page as to how the job is treated, the misunderstanding could result in a dispute. A basic tow might be charged hourly, such as the case of a boat running out of fuel on a glass calm day and being towed a short distance to the local fuel dock. But when a major peril looms on the horizon that jeopardizes a vessel, that’s when the nature of the job can change from a tow at an hourly rate to a salvage claim as a percentage of the vessel. Maritime law uses three elements to determine whether the rescuer is entitled to a salvage award. The situation must involve (1) a marine peril, (2) voluntary act by the salvor, and (3) the rescuer’s (maritime law actually uses the term salvor) efforts must be successful in saving the vessel and its occupants. Modern maritime law has expanded this to include additional elements, such as harm averted to the environment, such as oil spills avoided. In the case at hand, the salvage company asked the owner of the property if the boat was theirs. After learning the boat was not theirs and obtaining permission to come onto the property, the company proceeded with salvage operations that involved a 130-foot barge, 35-ton crane, push boat, work skiff, trailer, tackle, slings, and other gear. The salvage company presented the boat owner with an invoice for $7,144 for its services, specifying charges that included $6,000 for salvage; $500 for two hours of boat towing, $300 for trailer transport, $180 for five days of storage; $14 for hoisting at the marina, and $150 in administrative fees. The court noted that the range of salvage awards as a percentage of the salved property’s value ranged from 4% to 25%, where the company’s award request of $7,144 represented 22% of the court’s $32,500 valuation of the vessel, which was within a recognized range. The vessel owner argued that the boat was not in peril and sat in place for ten days without incurring further discernable damage. The court determined that the vessel did face peril and applied maritime case law to compute the salvage award, taking into consideration the labor expended by the salvors, their promptitude, skill and energy, value of property employed by the salvors, value of the property saved, and several other factors. In terms of the imagery that maritime salvage can evoke, one could think of a massive ocean-going tug off the Cape of Good Hope towing a stricken freighter from harm’s way as effortlessly as a club launch tows a string of Optimist prams. However, salvage operations can take place in the most tranquil backwaters, far from mountainous seas and gale force winds often associated with the traditional notion of a marine peril. Ref: JSM Marine LLC v. Gaughf, Civil Action No: 4:18-cv-151, United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Savannah Division

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