Many sailors have found themselves needing on-the-water assistance from another sailor, whether it’s something as simple as borrowing a jug of fuel or as serious as a rescue from a foundering vessel or a grounding. But will (or should) that person volunteer to help you, if doing so puts him or her in legal peril? And what if you are the person offering to help out? Is a vessel’s master obligated by law to provide assistance to any person in danger at sea, or any boat in danger of being lost?
This is what is known as the “Law of the Sea,” and it sets a model of moral behavior by mariners. However, while this centuries-old maritime tradition remains very much alive, admiralty law also stipulates that assistance be rendered only if it can be done without serious damage to either of the vessels or the individuals aboard—in other words, safely performed depending upon the existing conditions.
You are a “Good Samaritan” if you arrive first on the scene when another skipper has a problem and render voluntary aid without compensation to a person or vessel in distress.
With this in mind, the Federal Boating Safety Act contains the following Good Samaritan provision: “Any person…who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a vessel collision, accident or other casualty without objection of any person assisted, shall not be held liable for any act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment or other assistance where the assisting person(s) acts as an ordinary, reasonable prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances.”
A second rule to keep in mind could be said to be the “Do No Harm” rule. In fact, numerous state laws applying to recreational boaters contain a “standard of care”—i.e., reasonable care to avoid “grossly negligent or reckless and wanton” conduct that worsens the situation, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
Joe Carro of the United States Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division says that technically, for a pleasure boater to be required to render aid under federal law, it is necessary to have found the distressed boater at sea and in danger of being lost—so most boaters would not be obligated to attempt assistance to someone in trouble inshore or having run aground. Should you encounter someone in U.S. territorial waters in need of assistance, Carro recommends you call in an alert giving the disabled boat’s position, estimating the ability of its captain or crew to operate the boat and their willingness to take on a boarding officer upon Coast Guard arrival.
Beyond that, what about the simple act of throwing a tow rope to a disabled craft in, say, the absence of an accident or collision? For towing, virtually every state boating guide emphasizes that special care is required when doing so: towlines can get tangled around prop shafts, another boat could hit the line and reduced visibility or bad weather, particularly at night or in areas shared with heavy commercial traffic, would be hazardous.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, many boat owners are concerned with possible litigation and insurance issues should either vessel sustain damage. From a longtime marine insurance underwriter: “In the situation where a Good Samaritan provides help to a boater in need and damages their boat in doing so, the liability coverage will come into play if damages are sought after by the boater in need. If the Good Samaritan is found to be at fault for damages, or legally liable, the insurance premium would most likely be affected at their renewal. Whether the renewal is at risk in general would depend on the extent of damage and other claims.”
In other words, if the Good Samaritan’s vessel sustains damage, and the Good Samaritan’s insurance pays, the policyholder could be in for a loss surcharge at renewal time.
A maritime technical expert with extensive sailing experience weighs in: “The Golden Rule has always been one about freedom as well as helping one another through challenges whether or not an emergency situation exists. If there were no Good Samaritan laws, some people might not assist a boater, fearing a lawsuit if unintentionally the predicament worsens.”
It is true that generally sailors are afforded some measure of legal protection, so long as actions are reasonable and prudent, but sometimes courts must decide in assessing damages. As one judge remarked in an oft-quoted case, “A rescue attempt must be considered in the light of the circumstance that faced the rescuers when they acted and not with the wisdom of an ‘armchair admiral’ after the fact.”
A particular case comes to mind where liability did attach. A new and inexperienced operator of a large boat encountered a smaller, grounded craft. Both parties agreed on a pull. Things did not go as planned, and there was significant damage to both boats. The helper here was not capable of rendering “prudent aid,” and lost in a later court case.
Today we feel that all our hailing devices and technology make us safe, but we also know there are times out on the water when you or a fellow mariner is having a problem. If you decide to step up and help, act reasonably and don’t put your boat or yourself or others at risk.
Joan Wenner is a widely published boating safety writer and also has a law degree