Civil LitigationMaritime Civil Disputes Issues: What is Salvage?

September 14, 20200

Today’s blog post will describe marine salvage and what constitutes a salvage claim, as well as resolution of civil disputes over salvage claims. Boaters sometimes wrongfully assume that marine salvage is limited to things such as sunken and/or sinking ships, but the applications of marine salvage are in fact rather broad.

Salvage in the U.S.

In the United States, as we noted in a previous maritime and admiralty law post, these cases follow the federal general maritime law, including salvage. Marine salvage is defined in The Blackwall, 77 U.S. 1, 12 (1869) as “the compensation allowed to persons by whose assistance a ship or her cargo has been saved, in whole or in part, from impending peril on the sea or in recovering such property from actual loss, as in cases of shipwreck, derelict or recapture.” It is important to understand that salvage compensation is not merely payment for the labor expended, but a gracious award based on the salvor’s services in the face of peril which incentivizes would-be salvors to act. Salvage goes beyond your everyday towing operation because of the dangers associated with providing assistance in the face of peril: poor conditions, sinking vessels, etc.

The Sabine and the Elements of a Salvage Claim

One example of a salvage claim can be found in The Sabine, 101 U.S. 384 (1879).  The Sabine, a steamer on the Ouachita River bound for New Orleans, struck something along the river’s bottom and began taking on water. Another steamer, The Mayflower, passed by and saw The Sabine in distress. The Sabine requested assistance from The Mayflower, which helped the vessel and its cargo reach its intended destination. The owner, master, and crew of the Mayflower then initiated a lawsuit to decide the civil dispute over recovering a salvage award for their efforts.

From The Sabine, the three elements of any valid salvage claim are: “1. a marine peril; 2. service voluntarily rendered when not required as an existing duty or from a special contract; 3. success in whole or in part, or that the service rendered contributed to such success.” Id. at 384. As to the first element, whether a marine peril exists, the trier of fact will determine whether the facts show a peril existed. Generally, marine peril exists if the vessel is in some situation that makes it probable that the vessel will be damaged or destroyed without some intervention. For example, a disabled vessel adrift during a storm would be considered marine peril. As another example, a vessel that runs aground in a place where it is a hazard to navigation would constitute peril. If a vessel is under control and not requesting assistance, there is no peril. Likewise, there is generally no peril if a vessel has run soft aground and can carry on with the next high tide.

The second element simply states that if there is some preexisting duty to render aid or services, there can be no claim for salvage. A perfect example to illustrate this is if a fire department responds to a fire aboard a vessel to put the fire out. The firemen already have a duty to quell the flames and have no claim for salvage based on these efforts (though they would likely have a salvage claim if they later towed the vessel).

The final element can be summed up in the oft-quoted phrase “no cure, no pay.” If the services rendered do not result in some bit of success, the attempted salvor has no claim for salvage.

Resolving Civil Disputes Over Salvage Claims

Civil disputes arising from salvage operations occur somewhat frequently but contract salvage and pure salvage claims are handled differently. Maritime and admiralty law attorneys who are versed in the applicable law and procedure for filing claims to settle these civil disputes are essential. Contact Desautel Browning Law today to discuss any salvage issues further. We are available by email at and by phone at 401.477.0023.

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