Judge won’t rule now on helicopter salvage

Sued by Greek shipowner, PHI claims there should be no award for chopper that landed on bulker’s hatch.

A US judge has refused to issue a judgment before trial in a case seeking to answer a humdinger of a legal question: Can a shipowner recover a salvage award if a helicopter uses its vessel for an emergency landing?

US District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown, of the federal court in New Orleans, denied a request from helicopter operator PHI to declare that an affiliate of Greece’s Ocean Freighters cannot recover a salvage award after the helicopter landed on the 80,700-dwt bulker Aeolian Heritage (built 2011) in March 2013.

Ocean Freighters shipowning affiliate Sunglory Maritime and Greek manager Aeolian Investments are pursuing a federal lawsuit over the incident. Their Chaffe McCall lawyers are seeking a $400,000 salvage award.

Safest move

According to court records, the helicopter was on an outbound flight in the Gulf of Mexico when the pilot felt an unusual vibration and turned back. He decided that he safest move was to land on a ship rather than continue to shore, although he did not radio a warning to the crew that the helicopter would be landing on its hatch with an “H” for such landings.

Lawyers say US courts have yet to award a salvage claim in such a circumstances, although they have done so when seaplanes were salvaged from the water.

Brown ruled that “the court cannot agree with PHI that a helicopter that transports passengers to offshore oil platforms cannot be property that may be subject to a salvage award if recovered or saved in navigable waters,” she wrote.

Questions to be answered at trial

And she said there remain questions that must be answered at trial before a judgment can be issued, such as whether the faced a “marine peril” and whether the vessel voluntarily rendered service to the aircraft.

PHI’s side argues that the shipowner can only recover its costs in the incident because a helicopter is the type of non-vessel property that cannot be considered the subject of a salvage award.

Henry King, the King, Krebs & Jurgens lawyer representing PHI, said says no salvage award is appropriate because the helicopter was not in imminent peril and the ship was not put at risk, since the aircraft landed on the helipad.

Bad precedent

And he says a salvage award in this case could set a dangerous precedent in a region where helicopters are regularly used for transportation to offshore oil installations.

Having salvage awards in such cases “would create a serious disincentive for pilots to take the appropriate action, which is always safety first,” he said.

The trial is scheduled to begin 17 March.

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