Marine Salvage Basics
It is the well-entrenched admiralty law of the United States that, as set forth by former Chief Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme Court, if property is exposed to peril or hazard at sea and is “saved by the voluntary exertion of any persons whatsoever,…a very ample award will be bestowed in the courts of justice.” It is the fundamental public policy of the United States as expressed in the general maritime law to encourage seamen to render prompt aid to vessels and property in peril at sea.
The modern profession of salvage requires significant investment in vessels and personnel equipped and trained to provide rescue services in dangerous conditions. Environmental protection and pollution prevention, and containment and cleanup are now a part of the salvor’s job, requiring additional materials and equipment for this purpose.
To have a valid maritime salvage claim and to be entitled a liberal salvage award, a salvor must establish the three following elements:
- Peril. The peril necessary to constitute a salvage service need not be one of imminent and absolute danger. It is enough that the property be presently in danger or that the danger is reasonably apprehended. The degree of peril, whether slight, moderate or severe, affects only the amount, not the entitlement to, a salvage award.
- Voluntary Service. A salvor must establish that its services were voluntarily rendered. Persons who have a duty to provide rescue services to a vessel are generally excluded from salvage awards. For example, crewmen are generally bound by a duty to help rescue their own vessel, at least until they have been released from that duty, and therefore would be unable to collect on salvage claims unless released from duty.
- Successful Salvage. Salvors must prove that their salvage was successful to obtain an award. Pure salvage is based on the concept of “no cure – no pay,” which means that the salvor is at risk or not getting paid in the event that the distressed vessel is not saved from its peril, at least in part. There must be some part of the vessel or its property that is saved from which to make the salvage award.
There are many intricacies to the laws of the sea. Attorneys who practice maritime law can answer any questions you may have regarding the nuances of admiralty-related matters.
Mason v. Blaireau, 6 U.S.(2 Cranch) 240, 266 
The Sabine, 101 U.S. [11 Otto] 384 
Unnamed but Identifiable Master & Crew v. Certain Unnamed Motor Vessel, 592 F.Supp. 1191 [S.D. Fla. 1984]
Bertel v. Panama Transport Co., 202 F.2d 247 [2d Cir. 1953]