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January 2005 Vol. 31, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Coast Guard Not Required to Rescue Divers

from the January, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the U.S. Coast Guard can be sued for providing questionable emergency care to an injured Florida diver who later became paralyzed.

Federal law does not require the Coast Guard to rescue scuba divers, since they voluntarily accept the risks of deep-water diving. At issue is whether the Coast Guard can be held liable for administering inadequate aid once it agrees to provide a rescue.

The case involves Brandon Drew Lewis, who was diving off the coast of Jacksonville in February, 2000, when he developed the bends and subsequently lost consciousness. Family members on Lewis’ boat immediately notified the Coast Guard, which agreed to help.

Once the Coast Guard arrived, however, its slower vessel transported Lewis to shore for medical help without providing any oxygen or other emergency care.

The lawsuit filed by Lewis’ family contends Lewis could have avoided injury if the Coast Guard had either followed standard procedure by providing oxygen or refused to administer aid. Since Lewis’ boat was faster, family members say they could have transported him to shore more quickly.

The Coast Guard counters that, under federal law, it has broad discretion in deciding if and how it provides emergency aid to ailing divers.

Of course, the question of liability is hardly the one that’s foremost in divers’ minds. The question of health and survival is. In moments of crisis, it’s hard to think logically, but having the presence of mind to ask questions about the speed of the craft or what services and equipment are available could make a critical difference in the moments that really count. It seems divers will have to determine whether to accept or reject the Coast Guard’s help in times of peril.

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