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Where salvage laws get tricky…

Several years ago, we were out on Long Island Sound when we heard a distress call on VHF channel 16. Since we always monitor 16 and stand by for any emergency assistance we can provide, we began monitoring the transmissions and taking notes as required by maritime law. The situation was so convoluted and tricky that we ended up writing a letter to Boat/US for clarification. Here is a reprint of the original letter we wrote to Boat/US and their expert response.

Letter to Boat/US:

This past weekend, there was a situation on Long Island Sound, which we followed on our VHF radio with great interest.  I will try to recount the transmissions to the best of my recollection to see if you can help clarify what happened and why.

Labor Day morning, a mayday call came through on channel 16.  There was a boat on fire with two people onboard not far from City Island .  The Coast Guard immediately dispatched rescue vessels, but a commercial tow service operator was close by and responded to the call, arriving first on the scene.

This commercial tower rescued the individuals, who had since jumped into the water.  The vessel was by then completely engulfed in flames.  The tower transferred the individuals to the Coast Guard vessel and they were removed from the scene.  The tower then took the vessel in tow as part of a salvage operation (that term was used several times) and planned to beach it to prevent it from sinking and, in his opinion, causing extreme environmental damage.  This was a 40’ diesel-powered vessel carrying 300 gallons of fuel.

Meanwhile, a NY fireboat appeared on the scene and began to douse the flames.  They ordered the towboat operator to drop the towline.  In the meantime, the Coast Guard informed the towboat operator that the owners had relinquished the rights to the boat to the towboat operator, who was now in charge as salvager and owner.  He wanted to beach the vessel. 

The towboat operator asked the Coast Guard to clarify who was in charge relative to decision-making in this situation.  The Coast Guard advised that their role was limited to the safety of the people and therefore their involvement ended when they picked up the owner and crew.

The fireboat refused to answer the towboat operator who kept hailing them, and put the Coast Guard off when they hailed.  Then the fireboat apparently doused the towboat operator’s people and ordered them to stand down.  Apparently, the towboat operator was told that he could begin salvage only after they said it was OK.

Who in this case had the ultimate authority to decide whether the vessel should sink or be beached? And who will have the ultimate responsibility for the cleanup and the salvage?  Will the owner’s insurance be the one to cover the cost of the clean up even if the rights were already turned over to the salvage company?  Will the fire department be liable for an environmental catastrophe if someone shows it could have been averted?

Could you please unravel this maze of controversy?  Obviously, there was jurisdictional confusion on the scene. We all dread the thought of finding ourselves in a life-threatening situation.  Most of us are not clear on the maritime laws regarding salvage.  Safety first is our primary concern, but what about the liability?

Thanks for your help.

Daria and Alex Blackwell

S/V Espresso

Response from Boat/US

We have reviewed the situation with the TowBoat/U.S. tower that was involved in the salvage in order to verify the facts surrounding the event.  They have informed us that your account of the situation was pretty accurate, although there were some very minor discrepancies.  The tower has indicated that he has been asking some of the same questions.

Let us address your questions individually.  Your first question was who has the ultimate authority to decide whether the vessel should sink or be beached.  This is not always going to be clear.  There will always be jurisdictional questions whether it involves the federal government in the form of the USCG or the state/local government, in this case the fire department.  From the perspective of the boat owner, his insurance company and the salvor on scene the desire is to limit the exposure to environmental damage and thus any liability that arises from the incident.  The salvor's intent in this particular case was to extinguish the fire while avoiding the vessel submerging, which would have significantly increased the cost of the salvage effort as well as significantly increasing the likelihood of a fuel spill.  However, from a practical standpoint the tower/salvor and the boatowner must also attempt to work with the governmental authority(s) that may be present to avoid incurring fines to the boatowner.  Fines are not covered by the insurance policy.

Your second question was who will have the ultimate responsibility for the cleanup and salvage.  This will always be the boatowner.  If the boatowner is insured, then depending upon the language included in the policy, the insurance carrier would be responsible to "stand in the shoes of the insured".  Although we cannot speak for any other insurance carriers, the BoatU.S. Yacht Policy supplies coverage for salvage costs up to the limit of coverage (value) of the boat as well as fuel spill liability coverage up to $500,000.  The specific policy language should be reviewed in regards to other Insurance Company's policies. 

You ask if the owner's insurance company will be the one to cover the costs of the clean up even if the rights were already turned over to the salvage company.  In order to answer this, we first have to discuss salvage rights.

In the event of a loss in which salvage is necessary, the salvor does not automatically receive ownership of the boat.  The concept of salvage in maritime law allows for a salvor to have rights to a percentage of the value of the property saved..  This means that they can exert a lien against the boat to recover a percentage of the value of the vessel after the loss, before any repairs are performed.  A salvor does not own the boat or take on any of the liability for the loss, other than for damages caused by their own negligence.  Therefore the boatowner is still responsible for the costs associated with any cleanup, salvage or any liability that may arise out of the occurrence.   Again the insurance policy should be reviewed to determine the extent of coverage for these items under the policy. 

Finally you ask if the fire department would be liable for the environmental catastrophe if someone shows it could have been averted.  The fire department's position in this type of situation is to protect public safety and extinguish the fire.  If in the course of extinguishing the fire they sink the vessel, any fuel spill, the cost of clean up as well as any damage that results is still the boatowners responsibility. If they are adequately insured, then their insurance carrier would take care of it.  The insurance carrier may have the opportunity to attempt to recover the costs involved if negligence could be shown against the fire department although it would be doubtful that they would be successful.

In this particular situation the salvor had the boat in tow and was attempting to fight the fire with their own personnel, several of whom are volunteer firefighters trained in firefighting techniques.  The fire boat that was on scene was apparently an 18' Boston Whaler that was unable to pump while underway.  Therefore the Fire Department kept requesting the salvor to drop the line.  While this discussion was ongoing over the VHF Radios the salvor continued to tow the boat to a beach where they could be sure the boat would not submerge.  Upon arriving in shallow water they stepped aside and let the fire department take over in order to avoid further confrontation.  We believe this action was appropriate for several reasons.  First the action taken by the salvor allowed the vessel to be extinguished while avoiding it being submerged in 80-90 feet of water which would have made the salvage and recovery effort significantly more difficult and expensive.  It also would have increased the likelihood of a fuel spill.

Upon getting the boat beached we also agree with the salvors decision to step aside temporarily in order to avoid the potential conflict that may have occurred.

We hope we have been able to answer your questions satisfactorily and appreciate your concern and interest in the situation.

I am available from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST) Monday through Friday. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding this claim.


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