If the captain has a stroke, does the Coast Guard need to know?

QuestionI own a large motoryacht and I employ a licensed captain to operate and manage the boat. The captain has a number of medical restrictions on his license, and he recently had a stroke. Can you give me some idea how this will affect his license? And, if he doesn’t report the stroke to the Coast Guard, should I as the vessel owner make a report?

Answer

This question raises a number of very good questions.

The reader has indicated that he owns a private yacht, but he is concerned about the Coast Guard license held by his hired captain. As we have noted in previous installments of this column, anyone who operates a boat that carries passengers or cargo for hire must hold a current Coast Guard license.

The Coast Guard’s jurisdiction also extends to any circumstance where an employer or an insurance company requires the boat operator to be licensed as a condition of employment. As such, the Coast Guard will probably have jurisdiction over the operator of the yacht described in the reader’s question, even though it is a private yacht that does not carry paying passengers. The Coast Guard will therefore be able to restrict the use of the license on medical grounds.

When the Coast Guard evaluates a potentially disqualifying physical or mental condition and grants a waiver, the mariner’s license will typically include a limitation to the effect that: “This waiver is granted on the condition that there is no further degradation of your condition. Any degradation shall be immediately reported to the nearest Coast Guard Regional Examination Center.”

This is potentially very serious, and the subject matter is of keen interest to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard. On Oct. 15, 2003, the Staten Island ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi slammed into a pier at full speed. The impact of the crash snapped the pilings at the seaward corner of the pier, and a concrete slab of the pier tore through the main deck of the ferry.

There were approximately 1,500 passengers on board. Ten people died that day, and more than 70 were injured. Property damage exceeded $8 million. The captain had apparently suffered a seizure.

The Barberi captain was upright but unresponsive for approximately two minutes before the incident. He had a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and prescription medications for back pain and insomnia.

After the incident, he was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and congenital heart abnormalities. These conditions and the medications he took raised fitness questions, but neither the captain nor his physician provided this information on the required physical examination report submitted to the Coast Guard for license renewal. The captain later pled guilty to a federal judge for knowingly submitting false medical information to the Coast Guard.

The issue of mariner fitness came in the spotlight again in Nov. 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. That investigation is not yet completed, but the ship’s pilot has reportedly entered into a Voluntary Deposit Agreement with the Coast Guard and temporarily surrendered his Coast Guard license, pending physical evaluations.

If your captain had a stroke, and you are the owner or a manager for the owner, do not let the captain operate the boat until his fitness to do so is demonstrated. If you permit him to operate the boat and a catastrophe occurs, your insurance company would have reasonable grounds to deny insurance coverage, since you are aware of your captain’s condition.

The reader also asked if someone should report the medical issue if the captain does not. There is no specific legal requirement to make such a report. However, if there are grounds to suspect that the captain’s health may compromise the safety of the vessel, its passengers, or others, the Coast Guard should be informed. Under circumstances such as this, the Coast Guard will not divulge the identity of an informant.

The Coast Guard typically responds quickly to such a report. They would probably suggest that the captain temporarily surrender his license under a Voluntary Deposit Agreement, which would stipulate the return of his license upon demonstration of physical fitness. If the captain refused that option, the Coast Guard would investigate the matter, subpoena medical records and, if the evidence led to a conclusion that the captain was no longer fit, the Coast Guard would bring an incompetence charge against the captain and seek revocation of his license.

The Coast Guard is best known for its search and rescue missions. After 9/11 it has been drawn into Homeland Security duties and, as such, its resources are spread pretty thin. Still, public safety remains a top priority.

If you are still uncertain about the proper approach to a medical issue for a licensed mariner, contact the Investigations Department at your local Coast Guard Marine Safety Office. Call Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach at (310) 521-3600 or Sector San Diego at (619) 278-7033.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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