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Lost at Sea: When Is There a Legal Duty to Help Those in Distress?


Last March, three passengers aboard a Princess Cruise Lines ship were watching for birds on the deck when they noticed three men in the distance on an unmoving fishing boat. They alerted the ship’s crew to the presence of the stranded men. When they subsequently asked the ship’s officer two days later what had occurred with the fishing boat, the officer allegedly walked away without explanation. Later, they discovered nothing had been done to save the men.

“While many people would think that the duty to aid is universal, the laws concerning land and sea vary on the matter,” explained a personal injury attorney in California.

Unfortunately, while the three men were alive at the time when the cruise passengers spotted the fishing boat, by the time the fisherman were actually rescued, two of the three men had died. The 18-year-old who survived the ordeal is suing Princess Cruise Lines, claiming that the behavior of the officer and crew was beyond the bounds of decency and was shocking and intolerable.

The general rules of tort law and personal injury law indicate that people do not have a duty to provide aid to other people. In other words, there is no general blanket legal obligation to come to the aid of a stranger in peril.

However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. General exceptions that apply in all states include situations where there is a relationship between the person in peril and the would-be rescuer, such as a parent who has a duty to rescue a child. Another general exception is when you put someone into peril: if you accidentally cause someone to fall into the water, for example, you cannot then simply walk away and let that person drown.

In addition to these general or common law exceptions to the rule of no duty to aid, there are certain laws and requirements that have been passed that formally impose a duty. For instance, ten states have passed limited duty to rescue statutes including California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

The law at sea, however, does impose an obligation on ship captains and crews to provide assistance to those in distress. These obligations are outlined in the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCOLOS), and the International Convention on Salvage.

Given the ship captain’s and crew’s-and, by extension, their employer’s-obligation to aid others in distress at sea, there is a strong possibility that Princess Cruise Lines may be held liable, if at least partially, for the fatal consequences of failing to render aid.

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