Boaters and Duty to Rescue – Personal Injuries, Legal Liability


With summer in full swing, many people find themselves enjoying time on the water in boats.  Although most boating endeavours are fun filled family or friend adventures, situations can arise in which legal liability for personal injuries can ensue.  For example, what is the liability of the boat captain when one of their invited guests accidentally falls in to the water and is injured or dies?  The Courts have held that a boat captain owes a duty to take reasonable care to rescue a passenger who falls overboard [Horsley v. MacLaren [1972] S.C.R. 441].

The boat captain is expected to perform a rescue attempt that would be reasonable under the circumstance.  Boat captains are expected to be aware of the recommended rescue procedure for a passenger that has fallen overboard but are not expected to execute the rescue to a standard of perfection.

The standard of reasonable care exercised by the boat captain must, as stated in Horsley, be measured in light of the immediate and pressing circumstance.  As long as the boat captain acted reasonably in the circumstance the boat captain will be relieved of liability for the passenger’s injuries or death.

With that established, can legal liability arise if one of the other passengers invited onto the boat is injured or killed while attempting a rescue of a passenger who has accidently fallen overboard?  If it can be established that the boat captain has by his or her fault created a situation of peril, they must answer to any person who attempts to rescue the passenger who has accidently fallen overboard.  If the rescuer is injured or killed as a result of this attempted rescue, they can recover damages from the person that created the situation of peril.

It is important in this circumstance to delineate between the situations of peril that the boat captain has created versus the general situation of peril that comes with a person accidently falling overboard.  The boat captain would only be held accountable to the rescuer for injuries or death if it could be established that the boat captain failed to undertake a rescue attempt or did so in a negligent manner.  In other words, the liability of the boat captain to the rescuer stems from the creation of a new situation of peril created through the boat captain’s negligent rescue attempt of the passenger who has accidently fallen overboard.

If you need legal advice on this subject or any other law related inquiry please contact us.