Good Samaritans Come in All Sizes

Monday, February 13, 2012


Rescue: Mitchell James (left), his brother Bradley and Bradley’s son Wesley. They were plucked from the sea by the container ship Horizon Reliance after their 38ft sailboat Liahona sank 450kms northeast of Hilo, Hawaii February 8, 2012 . Photo courtesy of AMVER.


Any school child knows, or at least believes, that if you see a person or boat in distress on the water, the “law of the sea” demands that you render assistance.  Simple human decency would require no less and from time immemorial, this has been the law of the sea.  But we live in a modern and litigious world…What are the facts?

Article by Auxiliarist Vincent Pica, East Moriches, LI, NY

A survivor from the fishing vessel Heritage departs a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter at the air station Jan. 25, 2012. Seven people were rescued by the Coast Guard and a Good Samaritan tug crew after the Heritage sank in Shelikof Strait. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.

Seamen have always come to the rescue of those in distress on the high seas.  In fact, Admiralty Law has consistently encouraged such actions.  Those “that go down to the sea in ships” have by law and precedent been urged to assist in lifesaving efforts.  On the US Federal books (46 U.S.C. paragraph 2304), it states:

“A Master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the Master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the Master’s or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.” (Emphasis mine.)

It goes on to specify that those that fail to do so can be fined (up to $1,000) and imprisoned (up to 2 years).  When a maritime law says “shall,” it means “must.”

For those that are expert wordsmiths, the term “at sea” doesn’t evoke the Forge River or Seatuck Cove – or does it?  Centuries of practice would argue that they are part of the seas and, in fact, the USCG Rules of Navigation (the COLREGs) embody, in Rule 1, the connectedness of our waters:

“These Rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.”

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Cape Cod and a Good Samaritan fishing boat crew search for a 32-year old man lost at sea after he was swept into the water by a wave while on Gull Rock near Monhegan Island, Maine. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The “Good Sam” Laws

The Congress and Admiralty Courts have addressed this little “at sea” loophole via the Good Samaritan regulations.  Federal Law 46 U.S.C. paragraph 2303(c) states that the Master or individual involved in rendering assistance “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 other assistance when the individual acts as an ordinary, reasonable and prudent individual would have acted under the circumstances.”  This creates, in legalese, a “high legal hurdle” to prove a case against a Good Samaritan.  The Admiralty Courts have always considered the chilling effect that a decision against a Good Samaritan would have upon centuries of lifesaving practice.  Even if the Good Samaritan made the situation worse, the Court has only ruled against the “Good Sam” if they were grossly negligent or exhibited “reckless or wanton conduct” in attempting the rescue.

This doesn’t mean that the rescuer even has to succeed – not all rescues do.  The Court recognizes that, “under the bright light cast by hindsight,” a rescuer might have done something differently and thus outcomes might have been different.  “A rescue attempt must be considered in the light of the circumstances that faced the rescuers when they acted and not with the wisdom of an ‘armchair admiral’ after the fact.” (Korpi v the United States, 961 F. Supp. 1335)

The tough part for you – the skipper – is deciding whether he or she is “standing into danger” that is beyond the capabilities of the crew or the vessel.  However, when you see a vessel alongside the rocks, most skippers will try – and the Courts will applaud you, even if you have to back away.



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  1. COMO Lee Ward says:

    Good article. All of our members should be made aware of this.

    • JIM GRANGE says:

      I thought I understood the “Good Samaritan” rule but now I am a little confused. Quoting from the article:
      For those that are expert wordsmiths, the term “at sea” doesn’t evoke the Forge River or Seatuck Cove – or does it? Centuries of practice would argue that they are part of the seas and, in fact, the USCG Rules of Navigation (the COLREGs) embody, in Rule 1, the connectedness of our waters:“These Rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.” I am now concerned that this does not hold true on land locked lakes. If possible an email would be appreciated.

  2. Jerry ( Jerrold ) Sullivan says:

    Excellent info. I have been offshore and in San Francisco Bay racer for years and have dropped out of races to render assistance. Advised by many that as soon as line is put aboard vessel to be saved that the salvor incurs liability should resecue efforts go bad. Also if boat providing assistance is an auxiliary boat, owner could be violating pricipals of allowing commercial boats to make tow. At one time we were cautioned when we used to have the long forgotten safety patrols as they were once called. At one time was advised not to fly Auxiliary ensign as we could not assist as commercial salvor had to make assist. Long forgotten subject, and not many members now fly Auxiliary Ensign in Bay Area which is rather sad . As a sailing vessel felt it was my obligation to assist where and when required and thought I was out of touch with present realities . Have seen many changes since I joined 45 years ago as a young sailor with 26 ft sloop, Nemesis.
    If we saill long enough there will be times when we hope there will be a good samaritan provide assistance . After 47 years in our family Nemesis is being sailed by No.1 and 3 sons who live in Bay Area.
    Mom and Dad’s boat a Morgan 38 is an operational facility and is there if assistance can be given . I would appreciate someone expounding on the substance of the information in this article so we can dispell some miss-information about who is obligated to assist in time of need . Having been plucked from heavy seas some 4 times, difficult to explain the devotion and required readiness and willingness towards helping others in need, and perhaps only comes from experience.

  3. Alan Reff says:

    To clarify: the policy about AUX come-upons is clearly defined in COMMANDANT INSTRUCTION M16130.2E

    Paragraph on page 4-9 states (in part), “When an Auxiliary vessel on routine safety patrol or otherwise on orders discovers a vessel requesting assistance, but not in radio contact with the Coast Guard, the Auxiliarist will relay the request for assistance to the Coast Guard operational commander and may undertake to provide assistance, if capable.”

    further, NOTE on page 4-10 states (in part), “When the Auxiliarist notifies the SMC that they intend to assist the vessel, it’s not “asking for permission”. The Auxiliarist has already determined that he/she can safely provide assistance, and the notification to the SMC is a courtesy.”

    To sum up: Purpose of the notification of the assistance request is to keep the controlling station (SMC)informed. As the Note states, ” . . it’s not “asking for permission”.”

    Some CO/OIC can be stubborn about this, especially if they have not had much operational contact with the Auxiliary. My experience has been that adopting a respectfull, calm manner backed up by the Addendum works wonders.

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