This article originally appears in the News & Notes section of the March 2013 issue of PassageMaker Magazine
A federal appeals judge has ruled against a North Carolina boater who sued the U.S. Coast Guard, saying the Coast Guard had “no duty” to undertake rescue operations to save her or her late husband after a July 4 boating accident.
“The U.S. Coast Guard’s enabling statute ... authorizes the Coast Guard to undertake rescue efforts, but does not impose any affirmative duty to commence such rescue operations,” wrote Judge John Gibney Jr., in upholding a lower court ruling. “Because the Coast Guard has no duty to rescue, the law imposes no standard of care until an attempted rescue commences.”
The decision was handed down on Nov. 30, 2013.
Susan Turner sued the Coast Guard for failing to launch a rescue effort immediately after she
and her husband, Roger, were reported overdue from an excursion on their 20-foot motorboat to watch fireworks. The Turners had left their Little River, North Carolina, home in the late afternoon of July 4, 2007, after telling Roger Turner’s father that they were going to one of three possible locations that evening— the Pasquotank River, the Perquimans River or Manns Harbor. Once under way, the Turners decided to travel to a party at a friend’s house on the Perquimans River.
The Turners left the party at around 8:30 p.m., but by then conditions had worsened, with waves of 3 to 4 feet. Attempting to move from bow to stern, Susan Turner fell overboard at approximately 9 p.m., nearly 11⁄2 miles offshore. She cried out to her husband, who responded, and turned the boat around to come back for her, but at some point he, too, fell in the river. The boat floated away. Neither was wearing a life jacket.
By 9:30 p.m., Roger Turner’s father had become concerned. He tried to reach the Turners on their cell phones, then called 911 at about 12:25 a.m. on July 5. The dispatcher relayed the information to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Coast Guard, which returned his call at about 1 a.m. Turner’s father told the Coast Guard about the Turners’ plans for the evening, adding that they were experienced boaters and strong swimmers.
“He also told the Coast Guard that the Turners’ vessel had flares, a VHF radio, cell phones, flotation devices, an anchor, and food and water,” Judge Gibney wrote. “Upon receipt of this information, the Coast Guard decided that, due to the number of potential locations and the current deployment of search assets on a confirmed emergency mission (a missing jet ski), the Coast Guard would not initiate an active search for the Turners’ overdue boat at that time.”
While this exchange was taking place, Susan Turner was treading water and clinging to crab pot buoys. She survived in the water this way for 12 hours, coming ashore at about 9:20 a.m.
By then the host of the party the Turners had attended on July 4, aware of their failure to return home, had begun retracing the Turners’ return route and had discovered the Turners’ boat, beached and empty. With that information, the Coast Guard reclassified the incident from a “possible overdue” to an “overdue distress” case, and launched an air and sea search for the Turners.
Searchers found nothing. Roger Turner’s body washed ashore two days later. The medical examiner determined he had died by drowning but could not establish a precise time of death.
The Coast Guard had not been entirely passive prior to the boat being found. Watch-standers phoned local marinas where the Turners might have tied up and broadcast over VHF radio, seeking information from other boaters.
Gordon Garrett, a retired Coast Guard officer now working as a risk analyst, says the Turner case demonstrates the shortcomings of overdue reporting compared to personal locator beacons, which broadcast both a distress signal and precise location.
“As is typical, the overdue report was not timely, nor clearly indicative of distress, nor specific with respect to the position of any possible distress,” Garrett says. “A PLB worn by either would have almost certainly contributed to a better outcome. Likelihood of both lives saved would have radically increased, at likely much lower response cost than ultimately expended.”