Florida State Sen. Dana Young, who describes herself as “an avid recreational boat owner and sixth-generation Floridian,” has authored legislation that takes on towing services such as TowBoatUS and SeaTow.
The Tampa republican had some harsh words for the towing insurance providers used by tens of thousands of recreational boaters in America. Here’s what she wrote:
Many boaters pay for memberships with maritime salvage and towing companies in order to be covered for services like fuel delivery, towing and so on. But sometimes these companies seize on the opportunity to unfairly classify assistance as a “salvage claim,” a classification that lets them charge outrageous and unexpected fees based on the value of the boat, not on the value of their actual services.
These fees can sometimes end up costing tens of thousands of dollars for what should be a relatively simple job. Additionally, when basic assistance isn’t enough, some companies take advantage of arcane maritime law and choose to declare it a salvage situation.
Here’s the real shocker: Because the cost of assistance on the water isn’t disclosed up front, these companies can stick boat owners with costly salvage fees after the fact. This is a case of powerful companies preying on the vulnerable and unsuspecting – an act of modern-day piracy.
As just one example, I recently met with a constituent who was charged $30,000 after one salvage company spent less than 10 minutes helping him pump some water out of his boat (in a nonemergency situation), and this is not an isolated incident.
The bill, SB 664, would require that the following language be communicated to the skipper both orally and in writing before work begins, unless there is “an imminent threat of death or injury to any person onboard the vessel:”
THE SERVICE OFFERED BY THE SALVOR IS CONSIDERED SALVAGE WORK AND IS NOT COVERED BY ANY TOWING SERVICE CONTRACT.
SALVAGE WORK ALLOWS THE SALVOR TO PRESENT YOU, OR YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY, WITH A BILL FOR THE CHARGES AT A LATER DATE.
THE SALVOR SHALL CALCULATE THE CHARGES ACCORDING TO FEDERAL SALVAGE LAW AND SUCH CHARGES MAY EXCEED A CHARGE BASED ON A TIME AND MATERIALS CALCULATION. THE CHARGES COULD AMOUNT TO AS MUCH AS THE ENTIRE VALUE OF YOUR VESSEL AND ITS CONTENTS.
IF YOU AGREE TO ALLOW THE SALVOR TO PERFORM THE OFFERED WORK, YOUR ONLY RECOURSE TO CHALLENGE THE ASSESSED CHARGES IS BY A LAWSUIT IN FEDERAL COURT OR, IF YOU AGREE, BY BINDING ARBITRATION.
YOU MAY AGREE TO THE CHARGES WITH THE SALVOR BEFORE WORK BEGINS, AND THAT AGREED AMOUNT SHALL BE THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT THE SALVOR MAY CHARGE.
YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO REJECT THE SALVOR’S OFFER OF SERVICES IF THE SALVOR WILL NOT AGREE TO A CHARGE BEFORE BEGINNING WORK.
Boat US opposes the law, but its spokesmen said recent amendments made Young's legislation less unpalatable. Originally, the wording demanded that a boater be given a written cost estimate before a salvor could start work. As anyone who has witnessed a boating emergency can attest, negotiating a price while a boat is taking on water or pounding on rocks is probably not the best of ideas.
BoatUS spokesman Scott Croft says that of the 70,000 requests for assistance received by TowBoatUS operators, less than 1 percent are classified as salvage, not ordinary towing. The photo at the top of the page, provided by TowBoatUS-San Diego, dramatically illustrates the difference.
SeaTow also opposes the measure through C-PORT (Conference of Professional Operators for Response Towing), which is the national trade association for the marine assistance towing and salvage industry. Here is what C-PORT says:
Every professional salvor knows that time is of the essence when saving a boat from further damage. They understand that it can be a very scary situation for the boater when their boat is sinking, or their boat is precariously close to the jetty and the surf is pushing it aground. Rescuing the people while preventing property loss is what professional salvors do...
Educating the boater before needing our services is paramount. Boaters should understand their insurance coverage, their towing membership packages, and who the salvors are in their area should they need help. All professional operators are more than happy to talk to their customers about their services. Expecting that conversation to take place while someone’s boat is sinking or being hit by surf on the rocks or the beach is dangerous to everyone. Don’t be confused into believing that a vessel already sunk is the same as a vessel sinking.
If passed by both houses of the Florida legislature, the bill would go into effect on July 1.