Fundamental U.S. Maritime law imposes a duty to rescue at sea. In Caminiti v. Tomlinson Fleet Corp., 1981 A.M.C. 201 (E.D. Ohio), two men went overboard from their vessel and two passing commercial ships didn’t stop, despite seeing the passengers struggling in the water. The men drowned and the shipping companies denied that a duty to rescue the men existed. The court disagreed, finding that “the law of the sea has always demanded a higher degree of care, vigilance and diligence,” and that the duty to rescue “strangers in peril” exists even if the ships were not the cause of the peril.
On February 24, 2012, a commercial fishing boat crewed by three young, Panamanian men was heading home to Rio Hato, Panama after a fishing excursion. The engine on the small vessel failed and was adrift without power for nearly 15 days before it was spotted by three passengers aboard the Star Princess. The cruise ship passengers allegedly spotted the distressed vessel through a pair of high-powered binoculars and immediately alerted the ship’s crewmembers that the fishermen were signaling for help, waving their arms and a red piece of cloth tied to a pole. Unfortunately, the Star Princess continued on its course and failed to effectuate a rescue.
The fishing boat was later discovered by the Ecuadorean Coast Guard on March 24th near the Galapagos Islands, with only one survivor onboard, 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez. Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died of dehydration on March 11 and Fernando Osorio, 16, died four days later from dehydration, sunburn and heat stroke.