“Salvage” does not mean “Finders Keepers”

Last month I left a lot of readers hanging when I mentioned that the intricacies of the Law of Salvage were brought home to me during my tenure as an Assistant Attorney General.  A local denizen of the community (no doubt one of the “flotsam and jetsam of humanity” from last month) had been convicted of stealing a boat and sent off to prison from which he launched an appeal. He represented himself and wrote a brief in which he argued the State of Florida could not prosecute him because by taking the boat he was acting under the “federal law of salvage.” Since his brief contained the word “boat,” and everybody knew I was a “past commodore,” the case was assigned to me. I quickly headed to our law library to do some research.
I learned that “salvage” does not mean “finder’s keepers.” In fact, the Law of Salvage is pretty complicated stuff. It rewards a voluntary salvor for successful rescue of life or property imperiled at sea. It is not self-actuating; in other words, the salvor does not yell “dibs” and “claim” salvage. A would-be salvor must bring an action in a federal district court and bears the burden of showing (1) a maritime peril from which the ship or other property could not have been rescued without the salvor’s assistance; (2) a voluntary act by the salvor without a pre-existing contractual, official, or legal duty to render assistance; and (3) success in saving or helping to save at least part of the property at risk. Finally, the salvor doesn’t suddenly own the thing that was saved: he or she merely has a monetary claim against it. The United States Supreme Court laid out the requirements for a salvage award in the case of The Blackwall, 77 U.S. 1 (1869) and the law has not changed.
P.S. And as to our habitué of the Department of Corrections . . . . 
The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with me that making fast a line to an abandoned boat and towing it away does not constitute “salvage.”  His appeal was denied and he remained in custody where he finished out his sentence, possibly in the prison library reading up on the Law of Salvage.

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