Marine Salvage Award for Post-Hurricane Vessel Recovery

Recently, a United States District Court in the Southern District of Georgia granted a salvage award to a professional salvor for the recovery of a pleasure vessel in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. In JSM Marine LLC v. Gaughf, — F. Supp.3d – (S.D. Georgia 2019), 2019 WL 4309014, the court held that the marine salvor was entitled to a salvage award for successfully rescuing the pleasure boat from marine peril. The court also awarded the salvor reasonable attorney’s fees against the vessel owner.

Defendant owned the MIST APPROACH, a 2007 Grady White 228 Seafarer. The 22 foot boat had a small cabin and was designed for offshore saltwater fishing and inshore fishing in the Savannah, Georgia area. At the time Hurricane Michael landed onshore, the MIST APPROACH was tied to Defendant’s dock on a boat lift. The hurricane force winds destroyed Defendant’s boat lift and dock, and ripped the MIST APPROACH from its moorings. The vessel was transplanted four houses down and shoved aground onto a rocky shore surrounded by a field of hurricane debris. The vessel was clearly incapacitated. Unfortunately, at the time of the hurricane, Defendant had not properly registered the MIST APPROACH with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Defendant and her husband were forced to evacuate from the area and did not return home until after the hurricane. Defendant reported the damage to the vessel insurer who assigned an adjuster. After inspecting the vessel, the adjuster planned to contract with a third party to tow the vessel. Before the adjuster could retain the towage contractor, Plaintiff salvaged the vessel.

Plaintiff and a crew of four men working over 40 man-hours, conducted the salvage operation for the MIST APPROACH. Because of the precarious position of the vessel, Plaintiff was required to use a 130 foot barge, a 35 ton crane, a work skiff, gear, a push boat, a truck with a trailer and other specialized equipment. Plaintiff and his crew were forced to cut away rock debris and hoist the vessel from the debris field before transporting the boat to a warehouse.

Defendant refused to pay Plaintiff’s invoice of $7,144. Defendant claimed that Plaintiff’s salvage efforts were unnecessary, and claimed that Plaintiff had stolen her vessel. Plaintiff was arrested by local authorities for felony theft, but ultimately the charges were dismissed. Plaintiff then filed suit for a salvage award.

The district court found that the MIST APPROACH was clearly in marine peril because it was grounded and stranded on a rocky outcrop in a field of debris and could not be safely moved without assistance. Accordingly, the district court applied the specific criteria for a salvage award articulated by the Supreme Court in landmark decision The SABINE, 101 U.S. 384 (1879) recognized and applied by the Eleventh Circuit in Girard v. M/V BLACKSHEEP, 840 F.3d 1351, 1356 (11th Cir. 2016). The elements of a valid salvage claim are: (1) property in marine peril; (2) service voluntarily rendered by a third party when not required by either a contract or existing duty; and (3) success of the salvage, either in whole or in part. In Girard, the Eleventh Circuit specifically recognized, that “as a matter of public policy, salvage law encourages mariners to aid ships in distress.” Id. at 671.

The district court used the factors in landmark general maritime law decision in THE BLACKWALL, 77 U.S. 1 (1869) to measure the amount of the salvage award. These factors are:

  • the labor expended by the salvors in rendering the salvage service;
  • the promptitude, skill and energy displayed in rendering the service and saving the property;
  • the value of the property employed by the salvors in rendering the service and the danger to which such property was exposed;
  • the risk incurred by the salvors in securing the property from the impending peril;
  • the value of the property saved; and
  • the degree of danger from which the property was rescued.

After applying the BLACKWALL factors to the effort required to salvage the MIST APPROACH, the district court held that the salvage award of $7,144.00 was reasonable and justified. The court further awarded the salvor attorney’s fees for the pursuit of his salvage award.

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