USCG May Forcibly Evacuate Vessel in Distress
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the U.S. Coast Guard may order the forcible evacuation of a vessel in distress when lives are in danger.
In the case brought before the court, the master of a fishing vessel taking on water called the Coast Guard for assistance. Coast Guard personnel and pumps were insufficient to prevent the vessel from taking on more water and listing significantly. Eventually, the USCG on-scene coordinator directed all persons on the fishing vessel, including the master, to abandon ship, as he feared the vessel was about to sink suddenly.
When the master objected, the USCG officer advised the master that he would be subdued physically if necessary in order to take him off the vessel. The fishing vessel sank 55 minutes after it was abandoned. The owner sued the Coast Guard for loss of the vessel.
Over a strong dissent, the court held that the USCG decision to require that the vessel be evacuated when lives were at risk was protected by the discretionary function exception and that the federal government was immune from liability on that basis, even if the decision to order the evacuation was negligent. Thames Shipyard and Repair Co. v. United States, No. 02-1619 (1st Cir., November 26, 2003). Dissenting Opinion. Source: HK Law