I came across a rigid inflatable dinghy during a return trip from Catalina last weekend. The boat was drifting with no other boats in sight, so we tied the bowline off on our boat and towed it home. I assume the boat broke loose from the boat that was towing it, but now that we have it at our dock, we are left with the question of what to do with it. I understand that under old-time salvage law I might be able to keep the boat since I saved it, but I’m not sure if this is still the law. If I can’t keep it, am I entitled to any compensation? What are my rights?
Salvage is an area of maritime law that is often misunderstood by the yachting community. The short answers to our reader’s questions are (1) there is no law, old-time or otherwise, that would allow our reader to keep a boat that he found drifting; and (2) yes, he is entitled to some compensation.
“Salvage” is frequently confused with “towing,” since both services are frequently performed by a towing company and both may be rendered to a vessel in peril. Salvage is distinguished, however, by the “no cure – no pay” nature of the services. In a salvage job, the company gets paid nothing unless the vessel is successfully recovered. If the company gets paid regardless of their success, the job is a “tow,” and the company will get their regular rate for towing services. Even where it is a salvage job and the salvage is successful, many salvage operations do not involve a pre-determined amount for the salvage fee. The ambiguity surrounding the amount of compensation owed to a salvage company has confused judges and lawyers for centuries, so it’s not surprising that the yachting community has a few questions.
Upon the completion of a successful salvage where there was no pre-determined fee, a salvage company will typically enter into a negotiation with the vessel’s insurance company. Those negotiations will consider a series of six factors in connection with the salvage operation: (1) The labor expended in rendering the salvage service; (2) the promptitude, skill, and energy displayed in rendering the service and saving the vessel; (3) the value of the towing vessel and other property employed in rendering the service, and the danger to which such property was exposed; (4) the risk incurred in securing the vessel from the impending peril; (5) the value of the vessel saved; and (6) the degree of danger from which the vessel was rescued.
The calculation of a salvage award will consider the six factors and determine an amount that is a percentage of the post-incident value of the boat. If the case involves a quick tow, off a sandy beach with no surf, the award may be in the neighborhood of five to ten percent of the value of the boat. A strong onshore wind on an exposed rocky point, where people are risking their lives, will lead to a very high award. Regardless, awards that exceed 60 or 70 percent of the vessel value are extremely rare. Unfortunately, this does not involve a clear and objective calculation, and salvage claims therefore frequently end up in court.
As for our reader’s case, there is no law or circumstance under which someone may simply walk away with property that he happened to stumble upon. The salvage law principles discussed above will be applied, even if the boat appears to have been abandoned. “Finders-Keepers” is not a valid legal principal, except in rare instances where the property has been abandoned for so long that it has been buried in the sand and effectively “returned to the state of nature.” This may be possible in the case of an ancient, long-lost shipwreck, but even then, the rules of salvage described above would be applied if the vessel owners (or more likely the modern affiliates of the vessel’s insurance company) come forward. Bottom line – as always – contact an experienced maritime attorney to discuss the facts of your particular case in detail.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.