Eric Hull of Brandon says he was charged $30,000 by a salvage company to pump water out of his boat–a job that he says took ten minutes.

When Eric Hull called out a maritime salvage and towing company to get some water out of his boat, he had no idea what he was getting into. He thought it was a minor job.

But when he received the bill, Hull was shocked. It was anything but minor.

“A few weeks later I received a bill for $30,000 for what amounted to ten minutes worth of work on my boat. All they did was put a hose onto my boat and pump some water out,” Hull said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was appalled this could happen.”

The Brandon resident was a victim of what two Florida lawmakers call “modern-day piracy” carried out by some maritime salvage and towing companies.

“The actions of a limited number of these companies amount to a form of modern-day piracy, and it must stop. Unfortunately, there have been some terrible abuses in a system that many boat owners rely on,” said Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa. “Consumers throughout the state have felt misinformed and misled by vague salvage claim fees that crop up when they request assistance on the water.”

According to Young, the problem is that maritime regulations and admiralty laws permit salvage and towing companies to assess a salvage claim when assisting boat owners. Such claims usually result in excessive fees that are based on the value of the boat instead of the actual services performed.

“Although this is an industry filled with many good people who provide a great service, there are some undeniable exceptions. A number of vulnerable Florida boaters have been taken advantage of by operators who stick them with unwarranted and unreasonable bills for services on the water,” said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa.

Both Sen. Young and Rep. Harrison are sponsoring legislation in their respective chambers that would reform the way these maritime salvage and towing companies conduct business. The bills would require operators to provide a written estimate to a boat owner if the cost of the service is more than $500. The final bill would not be allowed to exceed 20 percent of the written estimate. A boater would have the option to waive the written estimate.

The measure has the backing of one of the state’s largest business lobbying organizations.

“Our state’s coasts attract millions of tourists every year, which is why it’s imperative that lawmakers do everything they can to ensure that boaters on our waterways have the same consumer protections that we have come to expect on land,” said Brewster Bevis, Senior Vice President of State and Federal Affairs for Associated Industries of Florida.

After receiving his $30,000 bill, Hull said he felt angry and knew something had to be done to protect other boat owners.  

“We need to make sure more people aren’t victimized by this predatory behavior,” Hull said.

Young and Harrison agree.

“This legislation ensures that Florida boaters will not be taken advantage of, that payment expectations are clear, and that all maritime salvage and towing companies are held accountable,” said Harrison.