Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Hutchinson v. Dickie, 162 F.2d 103 (6th Cir. 1947).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does the captain of a boat have an obligation to attempt to rescue an overbroad passenger?
This case dealt with the death of a passenger thrown overbroad while on a ship out on the water. Id. at 104. The court dealt with what obligations a captain of a sea vessel owes to an overbroad passenger. Id. at 106. Ultimately, the court found that a captain has an obligation to attempt a rescue in such a situation. Id. However, the rescue attempt need not be perfect, particularly in an emergency situation. Id. at 107. Because the Defendant in this case made an attempt to rescue the overbroad Plaintiff—albeit a sloppy attempt—he could not be held liable for negligent refuse to rescue. Id. at 108.
Defendant was the captain of a “pleasure cabin cruiser” that he operated on Lake Erie. Id. at 104. Plaintiff was invited to go out on the lake with a few other men, with Defendant operating the vessel. Id. All men had been consuming alcohol before and during the voyage. Id. at 105. At one point, Defendant made a sharp turn, causing Plaintiff to fall overboard. Id. Other passengers immediately alerted Defendant of Plaintiff’s fall, causing Defendant to stop and reverse the vessel’s direction. Id. at 107. Twice others on the vessel threw life preservers out to Plaintiff, who—despite his advanced age—was a very capable swimmer. Id. These efforts proved insufficient, and Plaintiff drowned, leading to his estate bringing this lawsuit. Id.
The court began by noting that normally there is “no legal obligation to rescue” someone in peril. Id. at 107. This is true even if failing to act would violate a “moral duty” or “commonly accepted code of social conduct.” Id. However, exceptions certainly exist. Id. At issue here was the fact that Defendant had contributed to the circumstances Plaintiff was in, by taking him out on the water and turning sharply without warning. Id. Further, the fact that “the only instrumentality by which [Plaintiff] might be rescued” was Defendant’s boat cemented that Defendant had a duty to act. Id.
However, that duty is simply one of reasonable care in light of the circumstances. Id. at 107-08. There is no obligation to make a perfect rescue attempt. Id. Instead, in these circumstances, Defendant was under great stress of the emergency situation and acted in a manner that was reasonable given those circumstances. Id. at 108. The court concluded that it was likely a better course of action to turn the boat around, rather than reversing it, but that action was appropriate given the hurried nature in which the decision was made. Id. Further, throwing the preservers was reasonable because Plaintiff was known to be a strong swimmer and it seemed reasonably likely that he could make it the short distance to the rescue devices. Id.
Based on these circumstances, the court concluded that better courses of actions could have been taken—and may well have saved Plaintiff’s life. Id. However, it would be unfair to hold Defendant to such standards in a situation that was so hectic and required quick action. Id. Put simply, any mistake by Defendant was “one of judgment and not of negligence.” Id. Thus, Plaintiff could not recover from Defendant. Id.