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The Return of Lost Property According to Jewish & Common Law: A Comparison
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde & Rabbi Michael Hecht

X. Salvage from Destruction: An Exception to the Rules?

A unique application of the rules of abandonment and relinquishment occurs in both Jewish and common law: the case of salvage from destruction.113 The Talmud recounts that one who rescues property facing destruction unpreventable by its owners or agents, acquires title to the property, even if the original owner is present, asserts ownership and denies that he constructively abandoned the property.114 Some authorities, most notably Maimonides, accept that this rule is an application of the general rules of abandonment, and that when the owner really can prove that he never relinquished the object, it remains his.115 However, most authorities reject this interpretation, and rule that once an object is about to be destroyed, and its owners are helpless to prevent this destruction, abandonment is legally imposed, and the item is ownerless as a matter of law.116 In these cases, an express negation of intent to abandon by the owner would be of no avail. As the Talmud comments, "It is as if one protested against his house collapsing or against his ship sinking in the sea".117 The presumption of abandonment in these instances is so strong that no negation will be given effect, either because the law decides that the negation is not consistent with the owner's true state of mind118 or, even if consistent, the law refuses to recognize unrealistic intent so contrary to normal behavior.119

Common law too had an exception to its general rules of lost property in the case of items facing destruction rather than loss. Common law authorized two distinctly different types of payment in that context. The first was called "salvage;" in the context of maritime law, one who saved another's vessel or property from destruction120 was entitled to a reward that would be determined by the court. Unlike all other circumstances, this payment was not necessarily related to the value of the services rendered, but was based on a number of factors, including the social utility of the work done, its risks, and many other factors unrelated to the normal rules used to compensate one for un-requested work done.121 This rule, however, was limited to situations where salvage occurred at sea; in all other circumstances, one who saves another's property from potential destruction intending to be paid for that service is entitled to payment based on quasi-contract, "based on the assumed [common law] obligation of compensation by one who has been enriched by the non-officious act of another."122 Thus, one who saw another's house burning, and rescued goods from the house was entitled to payment based on how much a person would have paid for those services at that time. This is considerably more than compensation for lost wages generally given by the common law to one who returns lost property in lieu of hourly work.

New York law, it would appear, continued the common law tradition that no reward would be given in all cases of land-based salvage and (at least implicitly) rejected the notion of compensation for "finding" lost objects threatened by destruction. However, New York's lost property law explicitly excludes from its regulation maritime salvage123 and New York continues to grant rewards for maritime salvage.124

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