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Life Salvage: Added Incentive to Save Life at Sea

The concept of “Life Salvage” is one of the most confusing principles of salvage law. Hopefully this short article will cast aside some of that confusion and clarify the concept.

The law of Life Salvage has not evolved from traditional maritime law as has the law regarding the salvage of property. Life Salvage has been created by statutes which were intended to provide added incentive to salvors and other mariners to rescue persons in danger at sea in addition to salvaging vessels and cargo. When the Salvage Convention of 1910 was adopted, it required Masters of vessels to proceed at once to render assistance to persons in danger of being lost at sea, and required vessel Masters to render assistance to other vessels following a marine casualty. Currently, Article 10 of the 1989 Salvage Convention contains the same requirements.

In 1912, to supplement the 1910 Convention, the United States enacted two statutes which remain viable today. The first was the “Standby Act” currently found at 46 U.S.C. Sec. 2303. The “Standby Act” requires vessels involved in marine casualties to “render assistance to each individual affected to save that affected individual from danger . . .” Failure to comply with the “Standby Act” is a criminal offense. The second was the “Life Salvage Act” currently found at 46 U.S.C. (Supp.) Sec. 729. The Life Salvage Act states “Salvors of human life, who have taken part in the services rendered on the occasion of the accident giving rise to salvage, are entitled to a fair share of the payment awarded to the salvor for salving the vessel or other property or preventing or minimizing damage to the environment.” 46 U.S.C. (Supp.) Sec. 729. Article 16 of the 1989 Salvage Convention contains almost identical language.

These Conventions and Statutes therefore have created a legal duty to render assistance in order to save life at sea, combined with a financial incentive to save lives as long as property is also salvaged from the same incident. Life Salvage does not create a fund from which a salvage award can be paid, but merely entitles the Life Salvor to claim an enhancement of the traditional property salvage award to which he is otherwise entitled from the value of vessel or cargo he has assisted in salvaging from the same incident. Since 1912, the courts have struggled to define the procedures, effects, and remuneration to which a Life Salvor is entitled. Due to the brevity of this Article, a lengthy examination is not possible.

However, the central principles of Life Salvage which can be ascertained from the case law are listed below:

  1. The Life Salvor will receive no reward unless he has also participated to some extent, either alone or in combination with others, in a successful property salvage effort;
  2. The Life Salvor will receive no reward unless he has forgone the opportunity to engage in more financially lucrative property salvage while he was busy saving lives;
  3. Life Salvage must be performed contemporaneously with a successful traditional property salvage effort, the reward from which the life salvor is entitled to share. For example, a salvor who rescues the crew from a burning ship and then attempts unsuccessfully to tow it, before departing to take injured persons to the hospital, will not share in the reward to which a later-arriving, but successful salvor, is entitled;
  4. A Life Salvor who rescues passengers and crew, but who does not engage in the successful salvage of property, is only entitled to a quasi-contractual claim against the stricken vessel’s owner for his costs of delay and diversion;
  5. A Life Salvor is not entitled to any share of a contract salvage award.

In conclusion, it should be remembered that saving life alone will not entitle a salvor to a reward. The salvor will have to remain on the scene and participate in a contemporaneously successful property salvage (or avoidance of environmental damage) before he can have any confidence of being rewarded for his efforts.

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