What is your obligation to assist at sea?

If you break down while driving, roadside service plans promise prompt help, no matter the hour. On a stormy sea, the options are less assured.

When it comes to rescuing life at sea, two international conventions provide guidance. The International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (IMO 1974) states that “the master of a ship at sea, on receiving a signal from any source that a ship or aircraft or survival craft there of is in distress, is bound to proceed with all speed to the assistance of the persons in distress informing them if possible that he is doing so.”

Exceptions to this exist, but they don’t seem to detract much from a master’s underlying obligation to lend a hand. A second convention (The International Convention on Search and Rescue – IMO 1979) also contains language imparting a duty on its signatory states to render assistance. This includes the following: “Parties [to the Convention]shall ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress at sea.”

This Convention also includes language specifically underscoring the intent to assist all persons without regard to their nationality or the circumstances.

On our own shores, Congress enacted a federal statute making it a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment for failing to assist “any individual found at sea in danger of being lost.”

Naturally, the statute includes carve-out language providing that such assistance is required only “so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.”

As for liability arising from rendering assistance, there’s a federal statute that says where the assistance is sought an individual “is not liable for damages as a result of rendering assistance or for an act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment or any other assistance when the individual acts as an ordinary, reasonable and prudent individual would have acted under the circumstances.”

Like everything in the maritime law locker, there are exceptions and you should tread carefully in this area and speak to your admiralty attorney.

Underway and making way.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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