Thread: The Good Samaritan and liability
06-05-2009, 02:50 PM #1
The Good Samaritan and liability
The Good Samaritan – Safety of Life at Sea
Flotilla Commander, 18-06 (1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
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 law of the sea. But we live in a modern and litigious world… What are the facts?
Your Duty to Assist
As said above, from time immemorial, 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 life-saving 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.” (Emphases 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.”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 life-saving 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 some vessel alongside the rocks in the Moriches Inlet, most skippers will try – and the Courts will applaud you, even if you have to back away.
BTW, if you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at USCGAUX2007@aol.com or go direct to MaryJo Cruickshank, who is in charge of new members matters, at FSO-PS@emcg.us and we will help you “get in this thing…”
06-18-2009, 12:07 AM #2
I was unaware of this federal law. Maybe a few catches. Does "at sea" include inland or coastal waters?
Reminded me of issue in the San Juan county jet ski ban that was upheld by WA Supreme Court in 1997. The lone dissenting judge argued it was ludicrous for local government to purport to regulate the high seas.
The issue is often referred to as federal preemption; federal regulation may preempt or invalidate local laws.
The classic good sam case is onlooker sees person drowning in pond. Onlooker jumps in and tries to save. But onlooker is not trained or skilled in saving drowning people. Onlooker is well intentioned but makes critical mistakes that make bad situation worse.
But it usually takes extraordinary facts to build a claim against average good sam. The "emergency doctrine" followed by most state courts acknowleges that even a reasonable and prudent person may not react perfectly in an emergency. Intoxication and interference with qualified emergency personnel are classic bad facts. The federal law mentioned in article seems to parallel common state law applicable on land or water.
All of this reminds me--we often say that motoring on the water is our right and I personally think in most cases it is. In a way its also a privelage though with an inherent obligation to aid others. I'm not sure what I would do in a life threatening situation. That makes a very good case for some training.
06-18-2009, 12:50 AM #3
An interesting corollary to the good sam rule is the "fireman's rule" common in many states.
The professional rescuer who gets hurt in a rescue is generally prohibited from sueing the person they tried to save.
Classic example: Person negligently and illegally parks vehicle on roadway. Police officer stops to write a ticket and gets hit by another passing motorist. Had person not illegally parked his vehicle, officer would not have been hurt. In that sense, the parking violator caused the injury. Officer can sue motorist that hit him, but generally not person who parked illegally.
The reason for the rule is in part to avoid discouraging people from NOT asking for emergency help. This has been a big issue in mountain rescues. Its why some states have enacted legislation that says person may not be civilly liable for injury to rescuers but is liable for the cost of the rescue operation.
A Twist: Arsonist sets fire to building. Firefighter is killed trying to put out fire. In WA, arsonist may be charged with murder. Can there be criminal but not civil liability? Is there a difference between the traffic violator and the arsonist who both put rescuers in perilous situations causing their death or injury?
06-25-2009, 08:38 AM #4
06-28-2009, 12:17 AM #5
But let me change the facts. Building owner is warned several times by county inspectors to fix electrical hazards but he never does. Building catches fire and fireman is killed. Building owner never imagined anyone would be killed but maybe he should have. Same responsibility as arsonist? What if building owner contracted repairs that were done incorrectly?
I know after while this can sound like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? But its a struggle for me to understand a clear rule that applies consistently in all cases where the fault of someone puts law enforcement or professional rescuers in peril.
07-02-2009, 12:22 PM #6
- Join Date
- Jun 2008
- md / Iraq
Most good SAM laws have not been tested in court and the protection they provide is in question . here is one for you if you burn down your own house is it arson ? answer no not unless you try to collect the insurance .
with that said I think the deciding factor when faced with any situation should be can you look in the mirror every day for the rest of your life and be comfortable with your decision and yourself .
that's just my .02 on how I make my decisions and I have never lost a nights sleep for putting the safety of others before my own
07-04-2009, 11:35 PM #7
Great words Wolfe. If you have served the US in Iraq, we all thank you.
07-05-2009, 12:55 PM #8
- Join Date
- Jun 2008
- md / Iraq
Thanks Blue182 , that's where I am now .
07-13-2009, 09:14 PM #9
Today I found the 2007 WA Supreme Court case that explains the rescue doctrine in detail. Get a load of these facts:
Pierce County (my county) Sheriff's deputies were trying to stop suspect driving wrong way on freeway. Driver would not stop so it became felony elude.
Some officers tried to block freeway, some laid out spike strips, some tried PIT ( pursuit intervention technique). Deputy B exits his car and runs up alongside. Driver takes off. Deputy B runs alongside pointing gun and ordering him to stop.
Second Sheriff's Deputy drives alongside and runs over Deputy B who sues her and Sheriff's Dept and county for negligence.
Can county assert fireman's rule or rescue doctrine as defense?
I hope all is well Wolfe.
08-06-2009, 09:36 PM #10
Beaupre v Pierce County 161 Wn. 2d 568 (2007)
According to the Washington State Supreme Court, the rescue doctrine alows a voluntary rescuer to seek recovery for injuries incurred while reasonably undertaking the rescue of a person who has negligently placed himself in a position of imminent peril.
But the rules for professional rescuers are different. The professional rescue doctrine often bars professional rescuers from recovering because of risk inherent in any rescue unless there is some unforseeable hidden or concealed hazard.
In the specific case, the one deputy was allowed to sue the other deputy and the county because the professional rescue doctrine does not apply to negligent or intentional acts of "intervening parties" not responsible for bringing the rescuer to the scene.
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