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STAR PRINCESS Incident Raises Question: Is There a Duty to Save Life at Sea?

On March 10, cruise ship STAR PRINCESS passed within range of three stranded Panamanian fishermen, one of whom was seen to be waving a red cloth up and down by passengers aboard STAR PRINCESS. Yet, there was no rescue that day, and over two weeks later, on March 24, only one of the three fishermen were found alive near the Galapagos Islands by another fishing vessel.

The three men had set out for a day of fishing on February 24, but went adrift when their engine stopped working. At the time they spotted the cruise ship, they had been adrift for over two weeks. Adrian Vasquez, 18, is the sole survivor. His friends, who did not survive, were Fernando Osario, 16, and Oropeces Betancourt, 24. Mr. Betancourt died the night STAR PRINCESS passed them.

STAR PRINCESS is a part of Princess Cruises, which is owned by British/American-owned Carnival Corporation; Carnival also owns Costa Crociere, which is connected with the COSTA CONCORDIA disaster, a fact which has heightened scrutiny of this incident.

The three passengers who spotted the fishing vessel reported that they had sent word to the bridge through a crew member. However, STAR PRINCESS never turned to make a rescue. There has been speculation that STAR PRINCESS did not stop in order to keep to a schedule, or because the cruise ship crew believed the fishermen were waving to them in thanks for avoiding their fishing nets. However, Captain Edward Perrin says neither he nor the officer on duty ever received word that anyone was in distress. He said that if they had received word, they would have investigated and subsequently made the rescue, stating that their cruise line had made rescues over thirty times in the past ten years.

The sad loss of Mssrs. Osario and Betancourt's lives begs the questions: Is there a duty to save lives at sea, and what does that duty entail?

While there is nearly always monetary reward for successfully salvaging a vessel and its cargo, backed by centuries of law governing such salvage and the compensation thereof, historically there has been little law written governing salvaging life at sea. Furthermore, there is no reward or compensation system for saving lives at sea, unless, in certain circumstances, the lifesaving is voluntary (not contractual) and in conjunction with the material salvage of the vessel involved, even though most people believe that nothing is more valuable than human life.

Duty to Save Life at Sea: The Past Century

The Salvage Convention of 1910 required vessel masters to come to the aid of those in danger of perishing at sea, and it required them to aid other vessels following an accident. Since that time, especially since the TITANIC disaster in 1912, there has been further recognition, global cooperation, and standardization regarding saving lives at sea.

In 1912, the Standby Act, 46 U.S.C. Section 2303, was passed in the U.S., which makes it a criminal offence if a vessel master involved in an accident does not assist and save from danger each person affected by that accident. Also in 1912, the Life Salvage Act, 46 U.S.C. (Supp.) Section 729, was passed, providing that those involved in the salvage of a vessel and who have saved human lives in doing so are to be awarded a fair share of the salvage payment. The caveat there, however, is that saving human life without also taking part in material salvage will have no financial reward.

46 U.S.C. Section 2304 states, "A master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master's or individual's vessel or individuals on board."

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in Article 98, "Duty to Render Assistance," expresses much the same rule as 46 U.S.C. Section 2304 does, adding that each State [e.g. country] ratified under UNCLOS must establish a maritime rescue service in cooperation with neighboring States. Many States around the world have signed this treaty, agreeing to be bound by its terms.

The Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER) is another voluntary organization. Originally inspired by the events surrounding the sinking of TITANIC, in modern times AMVER is a computer-based, voluntary-enrollment global reporting system used by maritime rescue authorities all over the world to alert and divert nearby Amver-enrolled ships to aid mariners in peril.

The goal of the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) was to develop an international SAR system such that maritime rescues could be coordinated by those States that had ratified SAR. The oceans were divided into thirteen SAR zones, each zone being designated to responsible countries. For all zones, SAR specifies procedures, training, coordination, stations, and the duties of each SAR commander. Many countries did not ratifiy SAR at that time, even if they had ratified SOLAS, due to the obligations imposed by SAR, so in 2000 a revised annex, which emphasized a more regional approach, was adopted.

In global terms, enforcement of the duty to save lives at sea is left primarily to the discretion of each country. In the U.S., with jurisdiction generally in the federal court, there is a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to a two-year prison term for those vessel masters who do not save life at sea when they are able to do so without serious harm to themselves or their vessel and crew, as per 46 U.S.C. Section 2304(b).

An interesting note is that, on an individual level, in U.S. common law, a person who has not created a danger has no duty to protect or rescue persons or property from that danger. In maritime law, notwithstanding the duty described in rules like 46 U.S.C. Section 2304 and Article 98 of UNCLOS, unless there is a special relationship between rescuer and rescued (e.g. employer-employee; carrier-passenger; vessel-crewmember) or a causal relationship, such as when one vessel collides with another, the duty defaults to the common law in the instance of saving lives. Further, under common law, there are cases when a Good Samaritan may be liable for damages caused in the course of a rescue. So, there are times when an individual may decide against making the effort to save lives.

There is indeed a duty to save life at sea whenever possible, not only morally, but legally. Many lives have been saved as a result of the increased focus and teamwork concerning saving life at sea, yet we are still left to the good will and good judgment of others when in danger, and, as exemplified in the fates of the three fishermen who were passed by STAR PRINCESS, we are also left at the mercy of how aware the crews of other vessels are, and how effective their internal communications are.

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