When an attorney seeks part of a salvage award

In 1988 the S.S. Central America was discovered and scores of insurers who’d paid out on the loss more than a 100 years earlier now wanted their share. Legal battles followed and just when you thought the waters were still, a law firm filed a claim.

The law firm had a long history of representing the business entities that discovered the ship in pursuing salvage rights. In 2013, an Ohio court placed several of the companies into receivership and ordered the receiver to collect their property from all persons holding it, including the companies’ attorneys. The law firm turned over 36 filing cabinets of materials and apparently convinced another individual to turn over photographs and videos related to the salvage.

Next, the lawyer from the law firm that had represented the salvors filed a claim in the admiralty action seeking a salvage award. The lawyer claimed he’d provided voluntary assistance in turning over the filing cabinets and other materials all of which were useful in the continuing salvage of the vessel. Now that’s an interesting argument.

The story ends with the trial court dismissing the lawyer’s claim and the dismissal being upheld on appeal. As the Circuit Court explained, the lawyer was obligated to return the files to his clients under the applicable rules of professional responsibility and principles of agency law, thus it was not a voluntary act. Without a voluntary act, one of the three legs of a maritime salvage claim is missing: peril, voluntary act and success. 

It’s easy to shake your head at this, but it was a unique argument that a lawyer believed in enough to not only press forward, but to expend the time and resources to appeal. I like the claim for what it represents and you should too.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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