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Lonely Voyages: On the obligation to assist at sea

By John K. Fulweiler

Thanksgiving this year had me driving westward. The slick rip sound of tire on highway was our terranüm wake chasing us through West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and then down toward the Gulf and family. What struck me was the emptiness of the space. Early morning hours passed without sight of another headlight. There was an ocean voyage quality to our venture and an underscoring of the vastness of this space we call our homeland.

Loneliness aside, there are differences between such wet and dry endeavors particularly when it comes to needing assistance. Ashore, roadside service plans promise prompt presentation no matter the hour or highway marker. On an oily sea under sky scudded with storm, our options are less assured. Indeed, the starkly few choices available to those requiring assistance at sea might explain the maritime law’s treatment of the subject.

When it comes to rescuing life at sea, two international conventions provide instruction to the high seas sailor. First, and codifying what had been a longstanding maritime tradition, The International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (IMO 1974) states in pertinent part: “The master of a ship at sea, on receiving a signal from any source that a ship or aircraft or survival craft there of is in distress, is bound to proceed with all speed to the assistance of the persons in distress informing them if possible that he is doing so.” Exceptions and qualifications to this language exist, but they don’t seem to detract much from a master’s underlying obligation to lend a hand.  A second convention (The International Convention on Search and Rescue (IMO 1979) also contains various language imparting a duty on its signatory states to render assistance including the following: “Parties [to the Convention] shall ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress at sea.” This Convention also includes language specifically underscoring the intent to assist all persons without regard to their nationality or the circumstances. 

On our own shores, Congress enacted a federal statute making it a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment for failing to assist “any individual found at sea in danger of being lost.” See, 46 U.S.C. 2304. Naturally, the statute includes carve-out language providing that such assistance is required only “so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.” 

The skippers I know aren’t much concerned about a legal bridle compelling them to assist; they know they’d swing rudder around to help. The issue that has them creasing a beer can in worried contemplation is: What happens if in helping something goes wrong? Are they on the hook if a lawsuit is filed? My default in these situations is to remind folks that our legal system is tweaked toward false positives. That is, anyone can pretty much file a lawsuit against you and the better question to ask is whether you’ll prevail? While every circumstance is different and you’ll always want to speak with your admiralty attorney to understand your rights before setting out, there’s a federal statute stating that where the assistance is sought without objection, an individual “is not liable for damages as a result of rendering assistance or for an act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment or any other assistance when the individual acts as an ordinary, reasonable and prudent individual would have acted under the circumstances.”

Like everything in the maritime law locker, there are exceptions and you should, again, tread carefully in this area. Still, if a rescue is carried out in a reasonable manner consistent with good seamanship practices, I suspect that attaching liability on the sailor for an injury, death or what have you arising from his or her efforts could be difficult. 

I don’t know where your holidays will find you, but with respect to domestic distresses I know there’s a toll-free hotline for calling someone about your turkey issues and usually a mother-in-law available to mend rifts between fighting cousins.  Hopefully, that’ll be the extent of the assistance you’ll require this holiday season.

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies. 

Underway and making way.

Admiralty Attorney John FulweilerAdmiralty attorney John K. Fulweiler, Esq. practices maritime law on the East and Gulf Coasts. As a former partner of a Manhattan maritime firm, John now helms his own practice located in Newport, Rhode Island where he helps individuals and businesses navigate the choppy waters of the maritime law. John can be reached anytime at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or via e-mail at john@fulweilerlaw.com.    


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