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Ask a Maritime Attorney: Do I legally have to render assistance to a distressed boater?

Question: I recently read a social media post about a rescue at sea that was successfully performed by a boat owner who was in the vicinity of the boat in trouble. The post said nothing about the legal requirements of a recreational boater to render assistance to a vessel in distress, so it raised a few questions in my mind about our responsibilities as boat owners.

Is the duty to render assistance a “custom of the sea” or is it an actual legal requirement? Are there penalties for failing to render assistance? What if I damage the other boat or injure
someone during the rescue?

ANSWER: The short answer is yes -you must render assistance to a vessel in distress, and you can go to jail for
failing to do so!

This is an area where boaters and landlubbers face a different set of laws. 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.

The evaluation of “negligence” in this case depends a
lot on who and where you are and the nature of the distress. A licensed physician will be 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, assuming you did not cause the incident, you will incur no liability if you just ignore it.

On the water, lawmakers in this country and throughout the world have recognized the unique perils 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 a 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 Cod sec. 656), which requires “the operator of a vessel involved in a collision, accident, or other casualty” to render assistance, so long as the operator “can do so without serious danger to his or her own vessel, crew, and passengers.” A careful comparison between these laws reveals a different approach between California and federal law. The California statute imposes the obligation on a vessel operator “involved” in an incident, whereas the federal and international provisions apply to all vessel operators.

Regardless, the question of whether a vessel operator on California, waters is “involved” in an accident is not clearly spelled out, so in practice, there is little difference.

Similar to the non-maritime “Good Samaritan Laws,” the state and federal maritime assistance laws both provide for immunity from civil liability so long as the assistance is not rendered in a grossly negligent manner.

However, state and federal maritime assistance laws are notable because they 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 each other.

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 the maritime assistance statutes simply provide a formal framework for a process that is second nature to most boaters.

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.


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2 thoughts on “Ask a Maritime Attorney: Do I legally have to render assistance to a distressed boater?

  • David

    Fascinating. I’ve always been curious about when a vessel employs armed private security. What kind of liability does that open the captain up to? I believe in many circumstances liability ultimately falls on the captain like if the ship runs aground, there is a collision, or there is a spill of some kind?

    Does the same apply if say the security personnel get jump and shoot up a yacht?

  • sailboat scotty

    Always enjoy reading your columns. You mention “you must render assistance to a vessel in distress”, but is there a difference between property (a vessel) and human life/safety? What happens if I, as the operator of a vessel assisting/rescuing a vessel in distress, believe that my own capabilities as a captain or those of my own owned vessel rendering aid are not capable of “rendering assistance to a vessel…”? I would always of course focus on passengers and crew of a vessel in trouble, but having to render aid to property (the vessel in distress) seems a little too far of burden, and could expose me to danger/harm to my own vessel and crew. Thanks again and look forward to your response.



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