By the Admiralty and Maritime Team
In Solana v. GSF Development Driller I, et al., 587 F.3d 266 (5th Cir. 2009), the United States Fifth Circuit reiterated the longstanding rule that generally, a seaman belonging to a vessel in peril cannot claim a salvage compensation for saving his vessel.
The facts in Solana are quite interesting. As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, Global Santa Fe (GSF) evacuated its jack-up and anchored rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which included the Development Driller I (DDI), a $350 million dollar semi-submersible drilling rig. The DDI’s power was shut off and its crew was evacuated. Solana, a 20 year GSF employee and Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) of the DDI, and Lally, a ballast control operator and senior dynamic positioning operator, were among those employees who were evacuated from the rig.
The DDI was seriously damaged as Katrina steamrolled through the Gulf. After the storm had passed, a representative of GSF sought volunteers to return to the DDI to attempt to save the vessel. Solana and Lally agreed to return to the DDI as part of the GSF team. While en route to the DDI, the GSF team noticed that the vessel was out of position, severely listing, and dragging its anchors. Quite simply, the DDI was in severe peril. The helicopter transporting the GSF team was unable to land on the vessel because the helicopter deck was sloped at an angle. Each member of the GSF team jumped from the airborne helicopter onto the DDI’s deck. The team conducted a damage assessment, stopped flooding aboard the vessel, and attempted to stabilize the drilling unit. Two days after the GSF team began their efforts to save the vessel, a professional salvage team boarded the DDI. Solana and Lally worked with the professional salvage team for a few days until the vessel was finally stabilized.
Solana and Lally later filed suit seeking an award of pure salvage because they were part of the team that ultimately salvaged the vessel. Solana and Lally likely envisioned an enormous “payday” as the DDI was worth more than 350 million dollars. GSF moved for Summary Judgment asserting the longstanding rule that crew members are not entitled to a salvage award for assistance rendered to their own vessel. Solana and Lally countered with the argument that in certain circumstances, crew members can be salvors. Specifically, Plaintiffs cited existing jurisprudence holding that extraordinary events may occur in which a seaman’s connection may be dissolved de facto, or by operation of law, or they may exceed their proper duty, in which case they may be permitted to assert a claim as salvors. The Fifth Circuit disagreed holding that the rule barring a crew member from a salvage award is longstanding and rooted in a crew member’s duty to save both ship and cargo. Obviously, it is unwise to tempt a crew member to let their ship and cargo slip into a position of danger in order to claim a salvage award.
Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit held that Solana and Lally did not volunteer service to the DDI when it was in distress as volunteers within the parameters of the law of salvage. Instead, Solana and Lally had been asked by GSF to board the DDI following Katrina, and they expressly agreed to do so. Moreover, they expected to be compensated by GSF for their efforts to stabilize the DDI after it was damaged by Katrina regardless of whether those efforts were successful. A binding agreement to pay for salvage services irrespective of the success of the enterprise will defeat a claim for pure salvage. As such, Solana and Lally’s claims for pure salvage were dismissed.