Are Boaters with Coast Guard Licenses Held to a Higher Liability Standard?

I often volunteer at my yacht club on the race committee, and I sometimes serve as the principal race officer or “PRO.” It is generally assumed by PROs and others involved in race committees that if an individual holds a captain’s license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, he or she should be subject to greater liability in the event of an accident than an individual who does not hold a license. Is this assumption correct?
There are a number of answers to our reader’s question, since he is not referring to a specific incident, and since there are many ways to define “liability” or to subject a person to “greater liability.” This discussion could therefore lead to different conclusions depending upon the facts of a specific incident. With that disclaimer in mind … here is my answer.

As noted above, the “liability” of a licensed captain may exist in different contexts. For example, our reader may be referring to a prosecution by the Coast Guard against the individual’s license, or to whether an individual’s license might make a difference in possible civil litigation, or to whether a race committee should consider the license in the event of a protest in a yacht race. There are probably a hundred other examples, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s take a look at these three questions.

For questions of license prosecution, the Coast Guard exercises jurisdiction over a captain’s license when the mariner is operating a vessel for which a license is required by law (when they are carrying passengers or cargo for hire), or when a license is a condition of employment by the company with whom the mariner is employed. Under those circumstances, the “liability” of the licensed captain may take the form of a suspension or revocation of the license by the Coast Guard, or a fine.

If, however, the incident occurs in a recreational boating scenario, the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction over the license — and, as such, the incident will usually have no effect on the mariner’s license. There are limited exceptions to that rule, including cases where the mariner is found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or where the incident is so egregious that the mariner is found to have acted incompetently.

The question of civil liability based upon an alleged negligent act by a licensed mariner is approached differently. Negligence is generally evaluated by asking whether the person acted as a reasonably prudent person would have acted in similar circumstances. It is a subjective determination that does not rely on the characteristics or qualification of the specific individual, unless a reasonably prudent person in a similar circumstance would possess those characteristics.

For example, in evaluating civil liability for a collision at the start of a race, our hypothetical “reasonably prudent person” would probably be a racer with knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing and the Rules of the Road involving sailing vessels. An individual may, however, be an expert sailor without having a license, so the license would not be relevant to the negligence discussion.

So, assuming that our reader’s hypothetical incident is a recreational boating accident that just happened to involve a licensed captain, the fact of the license would not, by itself, cause the person to be held to a different standard.

Unfortunately, regardless of the fine points of the law, there is also a practical side of this discussion. The Coast Guard or a law enforcement agency may, of course, be called upon to investigate a recreational boating accident. If they believe that the accident was caused by the negligence or incompetence of a licensed mariner, they may include language to that effect in their report, even if they decline to take action against the license.

If a lawsuit is filed in connection with the accident, that report will eventually find its way into the official record of the lawsuit — which may, in turn, influence the jury, regardless of whether they were instructed that the license is not relevant to the case. The law does not function in a vacuum, and every technical legal analysis will be influenced to some extent by practical considerations.

Our final example of “liability” involved the decisions of a hypothetical race committee, and this question is actually the easiest. The Racing Rules of Sailing say nothing about whether a licensed captain should be treated differently than any other racer. Indeed, many unlicensed competitors are probably more experienced and more qualified to operate a race boat than their licensed friends on the race course. The license is therefore irrelevant to the committee’s deliberations, in the event of a protest.

As noted at the beginning of this article, questions of legal liability for an accident are extremely difficult to answer in the abstract, without knowing the facts of a specific case. If you do need information about a specific case, be sure to contact an experienced maritime attorney for more information.


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