A federal court in Florida recently looked at the liability of the U.S. Coast Guard in a rescue effort where a stricken vessel’s crewmember was injured.
A 63′ fishing vessel was returning home after being out at sea for three days. The vessel ran aground at night on a shoal north of Port Everglades (Fla.) Inlet. The forecast called for 15 to 20-knot winds and 4′ to 6′ seas, with occasional 8′ seas.
A mayday call was made that the vessel was breaking up on the shoal. The Coast Guard dispatched a small vessel called a 33 (about 35′ long) that was already on patrol. A little later, they dispatched a 45′ medium response boat. When the 33 arrived, the fishing vessel was listing to one side with its bow pointed toward shore amid rough sea conditions.
In deciding what type of transfer method would be used for the stricken vessel’s crew, the 33’s crew considered the sea conditions, presence of debris in the water, and possibility of capsize. They determined that a direct transfer would be preferable to people jumping in the water. They also felt that transfer should take place between the bow of the 33 and the stern of the stricken vessel.
When it was his turn to board the Coast Guard 33, the plaintiff recalled a Coast Guard member standing directly in front of him telling him to, “Go, go, go.” The Coast Guard crewmember testified that he had not given the plaintiff the command to transfer. He said that he had his hand up to signal that he wanted the plaintiff to stand by. After the plaintiff jumped, he fell between the two vessels and subsequently found himself on the bow of the Coast Guard vessel with his legs hanging off. A wave brought the stern of the fishing vessel down on him and crushed his pelvic area.
The Coast Guard is not shielded by government immunity here, with the court citing the Public Vessels Act. The parties agreed to apply the Good Samaritan Rule, where liability is imposed if the “would-be rescuer was negligent under the circumstances and his conduct worsened the position” of those in distress. The court ruled in favor of the Coast Guard.