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II. Background & Development of Salvage Law

The legal concept that a marine salvor is entitled to a reward for the saving of imperiled marine property has been a recognized part of the admiralty law for more than 3,000 years. The origins of the concept may be traced from antiquity, as set forth in the Edicts of Rhodes, through the laws of the Romans, as set forth in the Justinian Digest, to the Medieval Laws of Oleron, the Code of the Hanseatic League down to the founding of the Republic. The original concept, as it has come down from the Romans, is that an individual who risks himself and his property voluntarily to successfully rescue the property of another from peril at sea and restore it to him has bestowed a benefit on the owner and should be rewarded by the owner commensurate with the magnitude of the benefit bestowed. The concept has a sound policy basis, descending as it does from an era when the distinction between pirates and freebooters on the one hand and honest seaman and salvors on the other was often only one of motivation and expectation. While both were on the lookout for a generous reward for their efforts, at least the latter hoped to come by it honestly. The purpose was to encourage honesty by generously rewarding those who restored property safely to the owner. Of course, many modern marine insurance adjusters would argue that the distinction between freebooter and salvor continues to be a vague one. There is still, however, a sound policy basis for the concept today. The interest of maritime safety and commerce as well as the marine environment are better served by encouraging salvors to prevent losses of vessels and cargo.

From the earliest days of this country, admiralty law has followed a liberal approach to salvage. The United States rejected the English maritime salvage system based as it was on the rights of the Crown and the lord of the manor to wrecks and salvage, in favor of a system which rewarded the individual for his efforts. It has always been the well entrenched admiralty law of the United States that, as set forth by Chief Justice Marshall in 1804, if property of an individual is exposed to peril or hazard at sea and is saved by the voluntary exertion of any persons whatsoever "[a] very ample reward will be bestowed in the courts of justice."

It is the fundamental public policy of the United States to encourage seamen to render prompt aid to vessels and property in peril at sea. As discussed by Justice Clifford in The CLARITA , "[p]ublic policy encourages the hearty and industrious mariner to engage in these laborious and sometimes dangerous enterprises, and with a ieiw to withdraw from him every temptation to dishonesty the law allows him, in case he is successful, a liberal compensation."

It is the well-settled view of the U.S. admiralty courts that "[c]ompensation as salvage is not viewed by the admiralty courts merely as pay, on the principle of a quantum meruit, or as a remuneration pro opere et labore , but as a reward given for perilous services, voluntarily rendered."

The admiralty and maritime law of the United States has long recognized that the law of salvage rewards the voluntary salvor for his successful rescue of life or property imperiled at sea. The purpose of this policy is to promote not only humanitarian rescue of life and property, but maritime commerce as well.

Justice Story summarized it well, as he so often did:

In cases of salvage, the measure of reward has never been adjusted by a mere estimate of the labor and services performed by the salvors. These, to be sure, are very important ingredients; and are greatly enhanced in value, when they have been accompanied by personal peril and gallantry, by prompt and hardy enterprise, and by severe and long-continued exposure to the inclemencies of the winds and waves. But an enlarged policy, looking to the safety and interest of the commercial world, decrees a liberal recompense, with a view to stimulate ambition, by holding out what may be deemed an honorable reward.

Indeed, the law of salvage is so well settled that it is sometimes said to be the jus gentium or the international law of the sea. Under this well settled doctrine of international law, salvage service is one which is rendered voluntarily to a vessel which needs assistance and which is designed to relieve her from some distress of danger either present or to be reasonably apprehended. As set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court:

Salvage is the compensation allowed to persons by whose voluntary assistance of a ship at sea or her cargo or both have been saved in whole or in part from impending sea peril, or in recovering such property from actual peril or loss, as in cases of ship wreck, derelict, or recapture.

It is necessary to draw the distinction between a salvage service and a salvage award. In order to have a valid salvage claim and be entitled to a liberal salvage award, a salvor must first establish that the services rendered were, in fact, salvage services. In order to establish a valid claim to have rendered salvage services, a salvor must establish three elements: (1) marine peril; (2) services voluntarily rendered; and (3) success, in whole or in part, with contribution to such success by the service rendered by the salvor.

Of these elements, the first, that of peril, is the most misunderstood and the most frequent source of debate. Anyone who seeks to understand the American law of salvage must first comprehend the American concept of marine peril. The concept is a broad one, liberally applied.

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