U.S. court says Coast Guard has the right to order master to abandon sinking ship

A ruling handed down from the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has granted the U.S. Coast Guard the authority to force a master to abandon ship if, in the judgment of the Coast Guardsmen on scene, the vessel is in imminent peril.

That’s what happened aboard Northern Voyager, the 144-foot trawler at the center of the lawsuit that resulted in this ruling.

On the morning of Nov. 2, 1997, the master called the Coast Guard and reported that he was taking on water and needed pumps. He correctly suspected he had lost a rudder. After less than an hour, the Coast Guard believed its pumps were not keeping up with the flooding and ordered everyone to abandon ship for fear it would capsize and sink at any second. The master was told that if he did not get off, the Coast Guard would remove him. He reluctantly complied, unsure whether the Coast Guard even had the authority to force him to abandon his vessel.

The vessel did not sink until nearly two hours later. At one point, the Coast Guard asked to shoot a hole in the hull because the trawler was not sinking fast enough and was a hazard to navigation.

The vessel’s owner sued the Coast Guard, alleging, in part, that the Coast Guard had acted outside its authority by forcing the evacuation. The U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the Coast Guard, argued that Congress has granted the Coast Guard complete discretion in how it conducts its search-and-rescue operations. A district court judge agreed. The boat’s owner appealed.

In a two-to-one decision, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling in part. It believed that the Coast Guardsmen at the scene had reason to believe Northern Voyager’s captain and crew were facing an at-sea emergency and that the Coast Guard’s decision to force the fishermen to abandon ship was reasonable and one that they could not be found liable for.

In a dissenting opinion, one judge argued the court had stepped out of bounds.

“The new, misguided doctrine promoted by the government in this appeal will have far reaching implications,” Chief Judge Juan Torruella wrote. “At a minimum, it will result in a shift in the decision-making responsibility for the safety and salvage of a ship from the person best-qualified and most-knowledgeable regarding his vessel, the master, to a governmental agency that … is not even required by law to engage in any rescue attempt.”

The attorney for the boat’s owner, Michael Rauworth, a former Coast Guardsman himself, said this ruling is at odds with traditional seafaring law.

“Once this ruling becomes known, we are concerned that some people — faced with trouble at sea — will actually decide not to call the Coast Guard, for fear of getting interference when all they want is help,” Rauworth said. “We hope that no one gets hurt as a result.”

Howard Candage, a marine insurance consultant based in Portland, Maine, said this ruling could, in some instances, force insurance companies to pay more money in claims than they might otherwise have to pay.

“Insurance companies and underwriters depend on the crew of a vessel to know their vessel and know how best to take care of it,” Candage said. “To randomly give someone the authority to overrule the master of a vessel could have serious implications.”

By Professional Mariner Staff