On land, you 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. A licensed physician is subjected to a different standard, and ’Good Samaritan’ laws in most states provide some protection against civil liability for certain people who render assistance, but for the most part, you will incur no liability if you just ignore the incident.
Maritime peril is another story. Lawmakers in this country and throughout the world have recognized the unique hazards associated with a nautical emergency, and the ’custom’ of rendering assistance to fellow mariners is an established part of international maritime law.
In the United States, federal law (46 USCS 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 part of an international treaty (the International Convention on Salvage, 1989), which extends the obligation to mariners throughout the world.
California has a similar maritime assistance statute (Harbors and Navigation Code sec. 656), which requires ’the operator of a vessel involved in a collision, accident, or other casualty,’ so long as the operator ’can do so without serious danger to his or her own vessel, crew, and passengers.’
This California law differs slightly from the federal maritime assistance statute, in that California imposes the obligation on a vessel operator ’involved’ in an incident, whereas the federal and international provisions apply to all vessel operators. However, the question of whether a vessel operator on California waters is ’involved’ in an accident is not clearly spelled out, and the question of whether a vessel may be subject to federal jurisdiction may be tricky to answer. The duty to render assistance may therefore be extended to vessels that did not participate directly in the incident.
Similar to ’Good Samaritan’ laws, the state and federal maritime assistance laws both provide for immunity from civil liability as long as the assistance is not rendered in a grossly negligent manner. However, the maritime assistance laws are notable, because they also include criminal sanctions for failure to comply with the law. Failure to render assistance under federal law will subject the captain to a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment for not more than two years, or both. Violators under state law will face a similar fine and the possibility of up to six months in jail.
In the end, regardless of the criminal sanctions or the protection from civil liability, the ’custom of the sea’ has always called for mariners to render assistance to one another. Everyone who works or plays on the water and who encounters another vessel in distress understands that they may be next in line to suffer a casualty, and maritime assistance statutes simply provide a formal framework for a process that is second nature to most boaters.