Last month I was returning home on my boat from a weekend at Catalina Island when I responded to a call from a disabled boat halfway between Catalina and the mainland. They apparently had engine problems and needed help since they were not members of an assistance towing program. We agreed to tow them home since we happened to keep our boats in the same marina. As we approached them to hand off a tow line, we were caught by a swell and crashed into them. Both boats suffered some minor damage but nobody was hurt. The line was eventually secured and we towed them home without further incident. They thanked us for our help, and since it appeared that neither boat was significantly damaged by the collision, I assumed that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, I received a letter from his lawyer yesterday demanding that we pay to repair the damage to his client’s boat. This raises all kinds of questions, but it all seems pretty unfair since I was the “good Samaritan” who rendered assistance. Should I have just ignored his request for assistance? What are my legal rights?
Before we look at our reader’s legal rights, I will first advise that he should immediately submit a claim to his insurance company. Insurance claims should always be submitted promptly, even if there is some question about who is at fault. The insurance company is much better equipped than a boat owner to hire experts to fight about who was at fault. And a claim may be denied if it is not submitted in a timely matter.
As for the legal requirements, on dry land we generally have no duty to assist a person in distress. The law simply requires that if you choose to render assistance, you do so without acting negligently. Our obligations on the water are different.
In the United States, a federal statute (46 U.S. Code sec. 2304) requires the master of any vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction to “render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost,” so long as the assistance can be rendered without endangering the rescuing vessel or individuals on board. This law is a part of an international treaty (the International Convention on Salvage, 1989) which extends the obligation to mariners throughout the world. The statute includes criminal penalties that may include jail time for failing to render assistance.
This federal statute may not apply to our reader’s case since it does not appear that the boat he was assisting was “in danger of being lost” at the time. But the statute does not provide any guidance for determining whether a boat is facing this kind of danger.
Leaving aside the question of whether the disabled boat was in immediate peril and whether our reader was therefore legally required to render assistance, his good faith efforts to help the stranded boat should be protected under both state and federal law.
Federal law (46 U.S. Code sec. 2303) provides that an individual who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a marine casualty is not liable for damages as a result of rendering assistance, assuming that he or she acted prudently, and assuming also that the person needing help did not object to the assistance as it was being rendered. California has a similar maritime assistance statute (Harbors and Navigation Code sec. 656) with essentially the same language.
Based upon the state and federal statutes described above, the demands made against our reader would need to include a claim that he failed to act prudently when he rendered assistance to the disabled boat. A failure to act prudently means that a person acted negligently, and this starts to look a lot like the law as it relates to rendering assistance on dry land. We could spend a couple semesters in law school discussing negligence, but for our purposes, we will simply say that negligence is rarely a “black and white” analysis. In most cases a court will end up allocating fault between the parties on a percentage basis. All of which explains why boaters who are facing this type of dispute should promptly submit a claim to their insurance company, followed by a phone call to an experienced maritime attorney.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com or via email at email@example.com.