Salvage is the act of rescuing a ship and its cargo in peril at sea. All mariners have an obligation to save life of others in danger without expecting any reward. Therefore, salvage laws only apply to saving of property. The cargo owner is liable to pay the rescuer for risking life and saving the cargo.
There are two types of salvage: contract salvage and pure salvage. In contract salvage, a cargo owner and a rescuer enter into a contract prior to salvage operations. The reward to be paid is entered in the contract. In pure salvage, there is no contract between owner of the cargo and a salvor (i.e., rescuer).
A salvage claim can be brought before a federal admiralty court.[i] Awards will be based on the merit of salvor’s service, value of the salvaged cargo, danger to which the cargo was exposed, and the amount of time and money spend for the salvage operation. However, if nothing is saved, or if additional damage is done after the salvage operation, there will be no award to the salvor. Salvage laws impose on the salvor the duty to protect the property in salvor’s trust. A salvor’s claim can be forfeited if the property is not protected with due diligence.[ii]
Generally, salvage claims are brought before federal admiralty courts. However, in order to assert federal admiralty jurisdiction over a salvage claim, the cargo that was rescued should have been in navigable waters.[iii] Navigable water is a body of water which can be used for commercial transportation. Only the federal government has authority over navigable interstate and international water.
A salvage claim arising from recovery of relics from a centuries old ship wreck is valid.[iv] In order to claim admiralty jurisdiction in rem, a ship and/or its cargo should be inside the territorial limits of a federal district court.[v] The court should have jurisdiction over the ship because in an action in rem, the claim should be made against the property. In order to adjudicate on the salvage claim as against the ship and/or its cargo, it should come completely under the territorial ambit of the court.
Jurisdiction over international waters is not an exclusive right of any nation. Salvage laws are shared by nations as a part of jus gentium that applies to all nations.[vi] Jus gentium is law of the nations. If there is a conflict between the laws of nations, it can be classified as jus gentium privatum i.e., private international law. Law that regulates matters of nations is classified as jus gentium publicum i.e., public international law. Therefore, salvage claims that arise in the high seas can be enforced by a general application of international law, and not on an exclusive basis.
[i] West Afr. Trading & Shipping Co. v. London Int’l Group, 968 F. Supp. 996 (D.N.J. 1997)
[ii] The Mulhouse, 1859 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71 (S.D.N.Y. 1859)
[iii] Jerome B. Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (U.S. 1995)
[iv] MAREX Int’l v. Unidentified, Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 952 F. Supp. 825 (S.D. Ga. 1997)
[v] Hamburg-American Line v. United States, 168 F.2d 47 (1st Cir. P.R. 1948)
[vi] One Hundred & Ninety-Four Shawls, 1848 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66 (S.D.N.Y. 1848)