The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL
The sea is a hard master and those who sail her are united in a common struggle. It is their tradition to answer calls of distress regardless of cost or peril. So firmly accepted is this tradition that our laws make it a criminal offense to ignore those "at sea in danger of being lost."
This case raises the interesting (and somewhat novel) question of whether those who go to the aid of seamen in distress are entitled to have their expenses reimbursed.
On July 4, 1973, William Turpin, a 63 year old fireman aboard the S.T. OVERSEAS PROGRESS, a tanker owned by the defendant (a New York corporation), began experiencing severe chest pains suggestive of a heart attack. The ship had no doctor, nurse or operating room. Turpin was treated by the ship's officers, who were guided by medical books and radio advice from the U.S. Public Health Service.
On July 5, Tuprin suffered a further attack. His condition was considered grave. The maximum speed of the OVERSEAS PROGRESS was 13.8 knots; it would have taken the OVERSEAS PROGRESS 57 hours to reach the nearest shore hospital, approximately 740 miles away. The master of the OVERSEAS PROGRESS sent a radio request to all ships in the vicinity with a doctor. The S.S. CANBERRA, a passenger vessel owned by plaintiff (a British company), was the closest vessel with medical facilities at that time. The two ships agreed to meet. Both altered course, the OVERSEAS PROGRESS maintaining its maximum speed, the CANBERRA increasing its speed from 23 to 25 knots. The ships rendezvoused approximately six and one-quarter hours later.
The CANBERRA took Turpin aboard and had him hospitalized, examined, tested and treated by the ship's surgeon and assistant surgeon. He was cared for by the ship's nurses and was given medication and nourishment. After taking Turpin aboard, the CANBERRA continued at its increased speed to New York, arriving on July 8, 1973, about two and one-half hours after her scheduled arrival time, having travelled 232 extra miles because of the request for assistance by the OVERSEAS PROGRESS. Turpin was transferred to a Public Health Service hospital for further treatment; he survived the attack.
In August, 1973, defendant received a bill from plaintiff's New York landing agent for $248 for services rendered by the CANBERRA's surgeon; the defendant paid that bill. On September 26, 1973, plaintiff billed the defendant's agent for CANBERRA's diversion costs, other medical and out-of-pocket expenses totalling $12,108.95. Defendant declined to pay. This action was then commenced.
Once it became apparent that Turpin's illness was serious the defendant became obligated to make reasonable efforts to provide him with medical care. See The Iroquois, 194 U.S. 240, 243, 24 S. Ct. 640, 48 L. Ed. 955 (1904); G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty, 2d ed., § 6-13 at 310. The question is whether the defendant, by entrusting Turpin to plaintiff's care, became liable for the CANBERRA's diversion costs and out-of-pocket expenses.
The arguments of the parties raise two issues: 1) whether the action is, in essence, an attempt at remuneration for "pure life salvage" and 2) whether there can be a recovery based on contract (quantum meruit or unjust enrichment).
Defendant contends that plaintiff is actually seeking an award for life salvage and that it is hornbook law that pure life salvage, per se, is insufficient to allow a recovery. As The Law of Admiralty, supra, states, § 8-1 at 532:
"Historically, the saving of life was regarded as fulfilling a moral duty but not as entitling the salvor to a reward. Thus there was a natural temptation to save property first and look around for survivors later. Life salvors now have by statute a right to a 'fair share' of the award made to salvors who have saved property on the same occasions.
Life salvage, unaccompanied by property salvage, still goes unrewarded."
Plaintiff counters that this is not pure life salvage since it saved the defendant considerable expense. This saving of expense, in and of itself, is sufficient to constitute a form of "salvage," argues plaintiff. See Brown, Compensation For Life Salvage at Sea, 2 Hastings L.J. 53, 55 (1951). In addition, plaintiff contends that life salvage principles are inapplicable here as it is seeking only reimbursement for expenses and not a salvage award.
The law of the sea has clearly not allowed an award solely for life salvage. In order to recover for life salvage, there must be property salvaged, St. Paul Marine Transp. v. Cerro Sales Corp., 313 F. Supp. 377 (D.Hawaii 1970), and it must occur "substantially at the time and while both lives and property were in distress . . ." The Eastland, 262 F. 535, 541 (N.D.Ill.1919). American cases do not support the proposition that one who saves life at sea, disassociated from any salvage of property, is entitled to an award.
Here plaintiff maintains that it is asking only for reimbursement of expenses, not an award. This distinction has not been recognized by the courts. In fact, Professor Brown, in his article, supra, admits that such an extension of the principle of salvage, while desirable, was not then (1951) embodied in our law. See, 2 Hastings L.J. at 54. This situation, while not the classic rescue at sea, does resemble life salvage, as it is possible that Turpin would not have survived a 57-hour trip to the nearest shore hospital.
The courts have been reluctant to assess maritime liens against vessels because of services to its passengers and crew. The explanation for this is that there is a moral duty to aid those in danger at sea and that it would be an undue burden on the ship owner whose property and personal interests had ...