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Suing the Coast Guard

What? What's wrong with you, why 'd you want to sue them guys? And that's the kind of question you ask when you're sipping an IPA on the living room sofa blessed with a belly full of turkey. But I'd venture when things get raw and personal and the hurt of loss makes you crazy, you might think differently. Fact is you might just be looking at what the Coasties did or didn't do with a pretty critical eye.

A recent federal appellate decision does a tidy job of explaining what you need to prove to find the Coast Guard at fault. The case was brought by a wife who along with her husband ended up in the drink after their small boat capsized in rough weather. The wife treads water for 12 hours, the husband doesn't and drowns. The appellate court explained that the thrust of the wife's case was that the Coast Guard should've acted earlier to save them from their predicament.

Coast Guard liability is premised on showing that it owed the claimant a duty, that it breached that duty and that the breach caused the claimant harm -- a framework typical to any negligence claim. The problem for the wife's argument, the appellate court explained, is that while there is statutory authority authorizing the Coast Guard to undertake rescue operations, it does not impose an affirmative duty to do so! Of course, when a rescue is undertaken the Coast Guard must act with reasonable care and its actions might impose liability where it worsens the position of the person being rescued, or, where it induces reliance on the part of the person being rescued or a third-party. Maybe thinking of the question of liability this way: "Did the Coast Guard increase the harm?" is an easy way to think about whether the Coast Guard could be liable. You can read the appellate court decision by clicking HERE.

I don't know whether the appellate court outcome was right or wrong because these things are so darn fact driven. What I do know is that I'm writing this the day before Thanksgiving and I'm going to give thanks for what I have and for what I haven't lost.

Happy Thanksgiving.

By John Fulweiler

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