Salvage, in admiralty, and generally in the law merchant, the compensation earned by persons who voluntarily assist in saving a ship or her cargo from a maritime peril. This compensation is not a mere payment on the principle of a quantum meruit, or a remuneration pro opere et labore, but a reward for bravely encountering the perils of the seas, given in order that the general interests of navigation and the commerce of the country may be advanced. As to the amount of salvage which shall be decreed, or the proportion in which it shall be given to salvors, there is no fixed rule or practice in admiralty. In respect to derelict or abandoned property, the ancient rule gave one half to the salvor; but now the position seems to be well established that the reward in derelict cases should be governed by the same principles as in other salvage cases, namely, that it shall depend upon the danger to property, value, risk of life, skill, labor, and the duration of the service. The court has no power to decree salvage for saving life merely; but if the saving of life can be connected with the saving of property, then the court will take notice of it. Nevertheless, efforts to save life do not command a compensation so much higher than is given for the saving of property as might perhaps be expected.
The reason is, that it is not a deviation when the vessel goes out of her way to save life, and therefore the insurance is not forfeited; whereas it is a deviation to vary from the course for the purpose of saving property, and compensation must be made for forfeiture of the insurance. - It is a cardinal rule that salvage services can be performed only by persons not bound by their legal duty to render them. A crew cannot claim as salvors of their own ship or cargo, not only because it is their duty to save her if possible, but because it would be most unwise to tempt them to let the ship and cargo get into a position of extreme danger, that then, by extreme exertions, they might claim salvage. But to this general rule there is the exception that, where the contract of the seamen is at an end, or the service rendered is so entirely out of the line of their ordinary duty that it may be considered as not done under their contract, there may be a valid claim for compensation. A crew are bound to suppress a mutiny on board their own ship at all events and at every hazard, and cannot claim salvage therefor. If the crew of one ship suppress mutiny or revolt in another, or retake a captured ship from mutineers or revolters, this may well found a claim for salvage.
If part of the crew leave their ship and go to save another, and thereby acquire a claim for salvage, the rest who remain share in the claim, yet not equally, for their right rests mainly on the increased labor, exposure, or peril which falls on them. For ordinary services rendered to the ship in time of distress, no salvage is due to a passenger; but in his case, as in that of a seaman, extraordinary services may give a salvage claim. A pilot, like a passenger, may become a salvor when his peculiar relation to the ship is dissolved; but most of our state pilotage laws make it part of the duty of a pilot to assist vessels in distress, and either give the rate of extra compensation to be awarded, or point out the tribunal which shall determine the amount due. Extra services are, therefore, generally considered in this country as such, and not as salvage services. The officers and crews of our national vessels are so far bound to rescue a vessel from mutineers that they are not entitled to claim any compensation in such a case, unless perhaps when they incur great personal danger, and use great exertions in the performance of the service. For an ordinary salvage service they are entitled to compensation.
As a general rule, none can claim salvage who do not directly participate and aid in the salvage services, or at least promote those services by doing the work of those who render them. But an exception, and a liberal one, is usually made in favor of the owners of the saving vessel, who are not only entitled to claim compensation for stores and other supplies and outlays, but salvage compensation in addition. - A salvage service is possible when the peril encountered is something distinctly beyond ordinary danger, something which exposes the property to destruction unless extraordinary assistance be rendered. But if the master can, by proper use of the means in his possession, save the property, the law presumes that he will, and that the salvor's interference was unnecessary; yet even if the master could save the ship, the salvors may show that he would not have done so. It is not necessary that the distress should be actual or immediate, or that the danger should be imminent and absolute; it will bo sufficient if, at the time the assistance is rendered, the ship has encountered any damage or misfortune which might possibly expose her to destruction if the services were not rendered.
That the property must be actually saved, and saved by those claiming to be salvors, in order to lay the foundation for salvage claims in admiralty, is quite certain; but if the party encounters the danger, and does all he can to save the vessel, and his services tend in some degree to preserve the vessel, compensation will be awarded to him, although the vessel is mainly preserved by other means. It is equally a salvage service, whether the service be rendered at sea or where the vessel is wrecked on the coast, and whether it be performed by seamen or landsmen. If a vessel at sea is short-handed by reason of sickness, and is navigated into port by a part of the crew of another vessel, that is to be treated as a salvage service. So compensation has been granted for keeping near a vessel in distress at the earnest request of her master and crew, although but little aid was rendered. - Salvage is generally decreed on all the property saved, whether ship, cargo, or freight. It is allowed on public property, and all goods of the government pay the same rate as if they were owned by individuals.
The general rule is that our courts have jurisdiction over all property, to whomsoever it belongs, which comes within their territorial jurisdiction; but vessels of war belonging to a foreign neutral power cannot be arrested in our ports into which they have lawfully come, and the same is true of a private armed vessel sailing under a commission from a foreign government. The private property of a foreign sovereign, or the prize property which a vessel of war brings into our ports, comes within the general rule, and not within the exception. - If assistance is rendered to a vessel under circumstances which would generally constitute it a salvage service, it may yet not be such; as where the service is rendered under a custom to give assistance gratuitously in similar instances, or where the aid is given under a special contract. If two vessels sail as consorts and under an agreement to assist each other, neither can claim salvage for assistance rendered to the other. Even when vessels sailing together are not consorts, nor owned by the same party, it is possible that there may be a usage of mutual help which would defeat a claim of salvage.
Thus it is said that if a steamer be stranded on a sand bank in the Mississippi, and another steamer draws her off, usage prohibits any salvage compensation. But a custom of one port that vessels shall assist each other gratuitously is not binding on vessels of other ports rendering assistance to vessels of the port where the custom exists. If, at the time of the service, the salvors make a bargain with the owners of the property in peril, or their servants, as to the amount of salvage, this is enforced by the court against the owners only so far as it seems equitable and conformable to the merits of the case. - Any gross misconduct on the part of the salvors, and especially any embezzlement of the property saved, forfeits their whole claim. The responsibility of the salvors, respecting the preservation and protection of the property, continues as long as the property is subject to the decree of the court. Salvors in possession have a qualified property in the thing saved, whether ship or cargo, or both, and they cannot be divested of this interest until it is taken from them by adjudication.
Yet it is not necessary that they should remain in actual possession, in order to maintain their rights or preserve their qualified property; nor should they do so to the detriment of the property or the inconvenience of the master and crew. - Military salvage is that which is earned by rescuing vessels or cargoes from pirates or the public enemy. In cases of recapture, it follows as an incident of prize. The amount of salvage is fixed by statute for most of these cases, and when not so determined must be governed by the general principles of law.