Who Has the Most Important Recreational Salvage Award Case in Florida? We Do.
It is not just a salvage award of $328,755.37. It is also now precedent-setting caselaw for marine salvage work in the State of Florida.
In late December 2013 the 110-foot M/V BlackSheep entered into the approach to Key West bight. Its captain pulled to the side of the channel to check his vessel before approaching the dock space, but as he placed his vessel into reverse the vessel spit one of the two shafts. This immediately caused a rush of saltwater into the engine compartment. Not immediately recognizing what had happened the captain sent a crewman into the engine room where the crewman found the rushing water. The captain immediately called the U.S. Coast Guard and stated he was taking on water and needed pumps to prevent the sinking of the vessel. At the time of this incident the vessel was positioned just off the rocks of the northern end of Duval Street, perhaps as close as 200 yards from several guest resorts—and not a good place to have a vessel sinking, forced grounding, or pollution from a 110-foot yacht.
At that same time a local salvor heard the MayDay call and responded to the scene within 4 minutes. He arrived in his customized salvage vessel with a high-capacity pump. He got the pump engaged to help stem the flow of incoming water but recognized the job would have to be completed underneath the vessel, in the dark, in the swift-running current, and just off the main channel. The salvor, now under the vessel realized the vessel shaft was well back of its place. He immediately began doing what salvors do: he began stuffing the opening from under the hull with materials from his boat to slow the deluge of water into the 110-foot yacht.
Soon a second salvor arrived and assisted with diving under the vessel and in winching the shaft back into place enough to slow the water ingress to a manageable level. Our two salvors then went onboard the yacht and into the engine room—which bore about a 1-foot watermark on it walls—and used their stuffing materials to seal the final gap close enough to take the inflow of water to a trickle. By the time of our salvors getting on board the yacht the USCG had arrived and observed the salvors complete the final interior patching. Notably, the USCG would not allow its on-scene personnel to enter the vessel until the flooding was under control. This is important for the following reasons.
Despite the amazingly quick response time of the first salvor, and then his second salvor, the insurer for the yacht balked at paying. The insurer alleged that:
- The vessel was not in danger.
- That the crew of the yacht had the situation under control.
- That the pumps on board were sufficient to control the flooding.
These allegations were questionable because:
- The yacht captain called the USCG and requested pumps from the outset.
- The yacht crew took the salvors’ pumps and the salvors’ assistance.
- The water-mark in the engine room showed the yacht was losing the fight.
- The captain wrote in his log he was “trying to save the vessel from sinking”.
- The USCG did not allow their personnel into the dangerous conditions.
In court the insurance company hired three “expert” witnesses to try to prove their allegations (See #s 1-3 above). At trial in Key West in the federal courthouse on 301 Simonton Street the defense did convince the judge that the vessel could have survived without assistance—which was something the evidence did not support (See #s 1-4). More importantly for this case—and for the future of maritime salvage cases in Florida—the insurance company convinced the judge that the salvors had to prove the vessel could not have survived without the salvors’ assistance. The federal judge ruled against the salvors.
But, in a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, the insurance company got the result it believed it wanted. In actuality what it did was to open the door for us to appeal the federal trial judge’s adverse decision and correct 40 years of bad law on maritime salvages. We appealed the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 11th Circuit is the federal appeals court which is over the states of Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Like the other 10 circuits governing other states, the 11th Circuit is the last court before a case from Florida, Georgia, Alabama would go to the U.S. Supreme Court. After both us and the insurance company briefed the issues in the case, the 11th Circuit reversed the federal judge and it ruled the following:
There is no fourth element of maritime salvage—as previously argued by the insurance company to the original federal judge in Key West. The 11th Circuit said there are only three elements to a maritime salvage—just as we had said in the federal trial court case in Key West. Those three elements are: marine peril, no prior duty to act, and success of the salvor in part or in whole.
The reason this case turned out to be so monumental for marine salvors in Florida is that it knocked out the insurance companies’ after-the-fact allegations that a vessel never needed the salvor’s assistance. The case also knocked out the defense that the salvor had to prove the vessel could not have been saved without the salvor’s assistance. It is very easy for a vessel owner or a marine insurance company—after the salvor has risked his life doing a salvage—to say, “We really didn’t need your services.” “We just used your services for convenience.” “We had the situation under control.” These after-the-fact stories will sound familiar to Florida recreational marine salvors. The 11th Circuit—which again governs the federal law in Florida—made it clear that the salvor does not have to prove the vessel could not have been saved without the salvor.
Insurance companies will still argue this point even though this case reversed 40 years of bad law. The case is known as Girard v. M/V Blacksheep, 840 F.3d 1351 (11th Cir. 2016).
Here at www.888BOATLAW.com we are very proud of this case. We are proud of the perseverance to obtain this generational 40-year case for the benefit marine salvors all throughout Florida. If you have a marine salvage case in Florida you can go to a law firm who can talk about marine salvage, but you can only go to only one law firm that was on this monumental case which will benefit Florida maritime salvors for years to come.
You can trust 25 years of specializing in maritime cases in the State of Florida.