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Salvage of silver bars & state immunity

For salvage of silver bars that were sunk during World War II, a hefty salvage award is almost certain, untill a State Govt. steps in claiming to be the owner of cargo and then refusing to pay salvage citing state immunity. In the case of The SS Tilawa [2020], South African Govt did just that. Did they succeed?

A UK company had salved 2364 silver bars (worth $43m) from SS Tilawa's wreck, and were now being held in UK to the order of the Receiver of Wreck. South African Govt. then claimed to be the owner of the silver bars and denied salvage payment. it was claiming immunity pursuant to State Immunity Act'78. The main question was whether the sunken ship and its cargo were in 2017 "in use or intended for use for commercial purposes".

Back in 1942 the SA govt. was importing silver bars for mint coinage. It argued that the position in 1942 was irrelevant in determining its status in 2017.

The court noted that cargo which had been bought pursuant to a commercial contract of carriage was intended for commercial purpose in 1942. This was a relevant consideration in determining its status in 2017. The court said when a state enters into such a contract for sea carriage there is no reason why it should not be exposed to same liability in salvage as a private cargo owner

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