vessel. Surely, also, this obligation could not reasonably extend beyond the time of determination of total loss, and payment therefore. The contract of insurance, adopting the so-called English rule, further provides that repair must be shown to exceed insured value for total constructive loss to be present. On the facts at bar, Continental was apparently convinced that a craft lost under the circumstances of the Skipton, and still missing thirty days after the loss, did satisfy this qualification. Libelant's own witness, Blond, testified to this effect as quoted above.
When Piperata did find his vessel, he was acting with the knowledge that Continental had in plain language rejected all ownership. Respondent is not a commercial ship owner; nor has he had training in interpreting contractual terms of art. Thus, he should not and can not be held responsible for a general familiarity with the often-confusing law of the sea, or a specific understanding of such concepts as 'constructive total loss' and 'abandonment.'
While it is true that an insured cannot automatically employ a defense of ignorance to vitiate the legal and contractual rights of insurer, in this case such a rationale does seem justified. Here Piperata's actions were in no small part due to the misleading conduct of Continental. Added to this factor was the extremely poor condition of the vessel. Given these various circumstances, it is the court's judgment that Piperata had no legal obligation either to notify libelant or abdicate his right to salvage.
Even should the court decide otherwise, and affirm Continental's right to claim the Skipton hull as per the Republic of China rule (D.C.Md.1958), discussed supra, it could not honor libelant's demands. The record shows without contradiction that the Skipton in its discovered condition was valueless. Thus any effort to wholly reclaim the skiff and return it to pre-storm condition would have entailed a prohibitive cost.
Evidence adduced during trial also indicates that respondent expended considerable personal effort and some $ 2,700 in order to refloat his vessel. The court must conclude that the repaired Skipton in October 1962 was worth no more than what is represented by these endeavors. Mechanically, the motors were then, and are still, hampered by the sand and water of two months partial submersion; structurally, many of the replacement parts are not of equal quality as the originals; and, most significantly, Skipton is, and was following repair, of highly questionable seaworthiness. No claim of unjust enrichment can therefore be sustained. While it is true that Continental had no opportunity to make its own assessment of the sunken hull and independent judgment as to the feasibility of salvage, this circumstance must again be attributed to libelant's failure to adequately protect its rights and interests.
The court furthermore finds libelant's bad faith argument regarding the Royal policy of little persuasion. The facts presented at trial and not the representations of respondent's wife to a disinterested insurance company dictate our disposition as to Skipton's value.
The following observations can be made by way of summary: When a ship is lost with the wreckage or remains undiscovered, it may be deemed a constructive or actual total loss, the precise definition ultimately depending on the time since loss, the circumstances of the loss, and the type of vessel. Should the loss qualify as only constructive, as would probably best describe the Skipton experience, the owner is obliged to abandon all claim to his ship to the insurer in exchange for full insured payment. As to the owner, whether the insurer accepts or rejects abandonment, the latter has the equitable right to attempt salvage upon future discovery within some reasonable period of time.
The legalisms of a policy of insurance, however, must always defer somewhat to the layman's interpretation. The conduct of an insurer can further enlarge upon his responsibilities to the insured, while simultaneously undermining his own contractual rights. Such is the instant case. The contingency of respondent's recovery of his skiff in the complete context of Continental's policy, its actions, and the applicable law, is simply not provided for.
As a final point, the court again takes notice of the extremely poor condition in which Skipton was found. Suffice to say for the present, that had the contrary been true, the equitable standing of libelant would be considerably enhanced.
Continental's libel and complaint are accordingly denied on all counts.
A form of order is to be submitted.