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Maritime Casualty

Second Circuit: No “Maritime Rescue Doctrine” for Seamen

Second Circuit:  No “Maritime Rescue Doctrine” for Seamen

When can coming to the rescue create tort liability?

Under the “maritime rescue doctrine,” a would-be rescuer in a maritime emergency can only be held contributorily liable for injuries he sustained during the rescue attempt if his conduct was “reckless and wanton.”  The doctrine is premised on the idea that rescuers in emergency situations must act quickly and without the benefit of hindsight, potentially causing mistakes that jurors may find negligent.

In Barlow v. Liberty Maritime Corp., 2014 WL 814929 (2nd Cir. 2014), the plaintiff allegedly injured himself while attempting to re-secure a vessel’s mooring lines to a buoy.  At trial, he requested a jury instruction on the maritime rescue doctrine, which would have required a finding that his conduct was wanton and reckless before any fault could be apportioned to him.

The district court refused to give this instruction and instead told the jury to hold Barlow to “the standard of a reasonably prudent seaman faced with the same emergency.”  The court noted that the maritime rescue doctrine originated at a time when a plaintiff’s contributory negligence (no matter how slight) was a complete bar to recovery.  Because the legal concept of comparative fault has been replaced by comparative negligence in the general maritime law, the primary justification of the maritime rescue doctrine (i.e. encouraging rescue) has been diminished.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling.

Second Circuit Denies Instruction on Maritime Rescue Doctrine

In its opinion, the Second Circuit advised that the significance of the emergency and possibility of harm will still be considered in the jury’s comparative fault analysis:  “Under the reasonable person standard and comparative negligence, rescuers can be confident that even if they misstep, the emergency will be taken into account, and even if, under that a circumstance, a jury finds their actions unreasonable, they will not necessarily be denied any recovery.”

Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.