Salvage Operations at Sea
Sometimes a vessel encounters a problem that its owner or crew cannot resolve. This may not only pose a risk to health, safety, and the environment but also lead to the loss of property. Maritime law provides incentives to “salvage” vessels that are disabled, such as by finding or raising them and returning them to a port. Salvaging a vessel can lead to a substantial reward, which is usually much greater than the amount required to reimburse the salvager for their efforts. This is meant to encourage salvage operations whenever a need arises.
Three elements must be met to qualify for a salvage award. The first element involves showing that the salvaged vessel faced a present and impending marine peril. However, the danger does not need to be immediate. Second, the salvage service must have been provided voluntarily. The salvaging entity will not qualify for an award if it was required to conduct the salvage operation by a contract or another legally imposed duty. The motive of the salvaging entity is not otherwise relevant, which means that conducting a salvage operation only for profit does not affect an award. Finally, the salvage operation must have been at least partly successful. If the operation did not provide a benefit to the ship owner or the ship, an award will not be issued.
Professional Salvage Companies
Certain companies are professionally involved in the salvage business. They operate ships and employ crews specifically for this purpose. As noted above, conducting salvage operations for profit does not preclude an award. A salvage operation is still considered “voluntary” even when a professional salvage company has responded to a call for assistance. Professional salvage operations often involve specialized equipment and skills, so a vessel in need of rescue would be expected to receive a greater benefit than it would from a non-professional salvager. These companies also incur substantial costs in maintaining their vessels and equipment so that they can respond immediately to emergencies. Thus, a salvage award usually is greater for a professional salvager than for a non-professional salvager.
Calculating a Salvage Award
According to the US Supreme Court, six factors should be considered in calculating a salvage award. These include:
- The labor expended by the salvager
- The skill and energy displayed by the salvager, as well as the efficiency of their response
- The value of the property used by the salvager in providing assistance, as well as the risk to which this property was exposed
- Any other risk faced by the salvager
- The value of the salvaged property
- The level of danger that the salvaged property faced
When considering the level of danger faced by the salvaged property, a court will place great weight on whether the vessel requiring rescue was derelict. This means that the vessel was abandoned or deserted, even if the crew hoped to return to it. If the crew or other employees of the owner likely could not have regained possession of the vessel, it will be considered derelict. A vessel that is derelict usually supports a greater salvage award because rescuing it is more dangerous. Moreover, an abandoned vessel can disrupt a shipping route, which means that rescuing it benefits not only the vessel owner but also maritime commerce more generally.
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