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United States Court of Appeals Outlines Coast Guard's Duty to Those They Rescue

A recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal's opinion sheds light on the duty owed by the Coast Guard to those they rescue in Washington and other states across the country. In this decision, the Court reenforced the maritime principal that in order to succeed in a maritime negligence action, the injured or deceased's estate must show that the other party failed in their duty established by law and that and injury or death occurred as a result. The Court emphasized that while the Coast Guard has the authority to commence rescue operations, they are not required to do so. However, once any rescue operation begins, the rescuer is then obliged to act with "reasonable care" under the 'Good Samaritan' doctrine". In order to act with reasonable care, the rescuer cannot act in a way that worsens the position of the victim by either increasing the risk of harm to the person in distress or inducing reliance on their efforts to rescue.

In this case, the a woman went out on coastal waters with her husband on a 20-foot long motorboat to watch Fourth of July fireworks. Prior to leaving, the husband told his father that they would be at one of three possible locations. The couple left a party around 8:30 PM and traveled across rough waters with waves three to four feet high. The wife fell overboard around 9:00 PM one and a half miles offshore, and her husband turned around to come back for her. Despite her husband's attempt to come back, she lost sight of the boat, and stayed afloat for several hours treading water. At some point during the night, her husband also fell into the water, with the boat drifting unmanned downriver. The husband's father became concerned and called early in the morning on July 5th, first calling 911, then the state's Wildlife Resources Commission and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard were told that the couple were strong swimmers and could be in several locations, so it was decided that an active search would not be initiated at the time of the call.

The Coast Guard eventually dispatched a utility boat that searched one of the places the couple would possibly be. As the Coast Guard search began, the host of the party the couple attended the night before located the empty boat. The Coast Guard reclassified the incident and continued the search using twelve manned search and rescue boats and planes until the next day at 7 PM. The wife came ashore on July 5th after treading water for nearly 12 hours. The Coast Guard search failed to locate the husband or his body, which came ashore after two days. The husband's cause of death was determined to be drowning. The wife brought a negligence action and wrongful death action on behalf of her husband, alleging they failed in their duty to use reasonable care. The federal district court and Court of Appeals both believed that the Coast Guard owed no duty to the couple to rescue them and did not fail to use reasonable care when search operations began.

The Washington maritime law attorneys, Gordon Webb and John Merriam, have over 50 years of experience litigating and negotiating maritime negligence and wrongful death actions. Through our diligent efforts to maximize compensation for our clients, our attorneys thoroughly understand the complex nature of admiralty law and what duty of care is owed to passengers, crew members, and civilians. If you have been injured or had a family member killed as a result of a another's negligent actions at sea, call our office at 877.800.1007 today for a free, confidential consultation.

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