It’s close on Halloween and I love salvage, making the case of the salvaged corpse a good topic.
It was a couple of years after the Second World War in Bayshore, New York. A man named Charles was on the Bay aboard his eighteen-foot flat-bottom skiff. He had a couple of thousand dollars in his pocket, but he was all outta luck (that last line should be read in the voice of Lennie Briscoe (a/k/a Jerry Orbach). At some point during the day, Charles fell overboard and drowned. Three months later, a fellow happened upon his body and “attached a rope to it and towed it to Bayshore.” The currency was turned over to the coroner, and the fellow who’d towed the body filed a salvage claim.
The maritime law of salvage does one thing very well: it incites interest in the plight of another’s misfortune and this 1947 lawsuit explores just how far salvage law reaches. Anyone (professional or amateur) who assists a vessel in peril and whose assistance is successful (even if it just contributes to the overall effort) is typically entitled to claim a salvage award with the size of the award determined by analyzing a list of factors including the degree of peril, the value of what was saved, and the risks assumed by the salvor. From a practical perspective, an hour’s worth of effort can conceivably yield a very large salvage award.
The salvage cocktail has two ingredients. First, you need to prove a salvage was performed which requires the following three elements: (a) a vessel in actual or imminent peril; (b) a voluntary effort and (c) success, in whole or in part. Vessels on fire, aground and taking on water are classic examples of a vessel in peril, but these are vanilla examples. A vessel in fog requiring the reassuring voice of someone guiding them into a harbor by VHF likely also qualifies as a vessel in peril just as a vessel that’s dismasted, rudderless or under the command of an incompetent captain. Even amateurs working on a dock braving hurricane winds and flying debris to secure million-dollar yachts from further damage were entitled to a salvage award!
As for being a “volunteer” this sounds tough to the ear, but’s pretty simple. When the salvage law speaks of a “volunteer” it’s excluding anyone with a preexisting obligation to assist. For example, a tug company under contract to provide marine assistance services to a barge company probably can’t make a salvage claim against a barge owned by that company. Similarly, unless the circumstances exceed a crewmember’s duties, a vessel’s crew can’t normally make a salvage claim for, say, working like dogs to save their vessel from sinking. As for “success,” that element can be distilled down to consideration of whether your efforts benefitted the vessel.
In our case of the corpse, the disputed issue was whether money found on a dead body floating in navigable waters is subject to a salvage claim. The Court started with a Supreme Court decision which had allowed a salvage claim for the furniture or cargo of a ship including “wreck, flotsam, jetsam, ligan or derelict.” And with a serious eye, the Court reasoned from that Supreme Court decision that the “dead body” floating in the Bay “probably comes within the category of derelict.”
You can sometimes read a Court’s decision and get a sense of its heading. Such is the case here where the Court speaks favorably of a prior case involving the recovery of a steamship passenger’s body. In that case, the Court wrote that even though there was no danger or expense it didn’t deprive the salvors of an award because “offsetting this circumstance was the unusual temptation to appropriate the entire property.” That is, a salvage award was given to encourage the return of the body as opposed to its looting and secretive abandonment. With all that in mind, the Court granted the salvage claim.
So, wow. know you think I’ve somehow gotten high on a strange mix of toner ink and caffeine, but this is a real case. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York and when you calculate the value of the money at issue in today’s dollars it’d be about $25,000.
Here’s a tagalong thought. Generally speaking, a vessel owner doesn’t have an obligation to accept salvage services and case law makes clear salvage services can’t be forced on an owner. If you don’t want salvage services, you can make that point clear and shoo the salvor away. Of course, that begs the question as to how in the case of a dead body that ability to decline salvage services could have been exercised. It couldn’t have been; so maybe the Court’s reasoning that the body was a derelict disposed of this issue?
At any rate, the next time you read this column might be post-election. What to say? Elections have consequences. Maybe your choices are like choosing between antifouling paints. The hard-bottom paint has a higher ratio of pesticides (usually copper), but as time passes it’s not very effective. The ablative bottom paint is softer and self-polishes, wearing away over time to expose a fresh outer coat. I usually go with the ablative because you sometimes get more than one season and the hard-bottom paint is a mess to clean up.
This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.
Underway and making way. ■
John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.