News & Insights

Pitfalls in Marine Casualty Reporting

If you hold a Captain´s license, you may want to pay close attention to this article. The U.S. Coast Guard has recently exhibited what can only be described as a “zero tolerance” policy toward licensed mariners who fail to promptly notify the Coast Guard of “reportable marine casualties” – regardless of how minor or trivial an experienced mariner may consider the incident. If it comes to the attention of the Coast Guard that a licensed mariner has failed to give timely notice of a “reportable marine casualty,” action against his or her license is quite likely to result.

The broad definition of “marine casualty” contained in the Coast Guard regulations includes all personal injuries, all groundings, and any damage to the vessel, its cargo or equipment, which “might affect or impair the seaworthiness of the vessel.” 46 CFR § 4.03-1. Within the broad category of “marine casualties” is a sub grouping of incidents which are most often referred to as “Reportable Marine Casualties.” 46 CFR § 4.05-1. In short, “Reportable Marine Casualties” include (l) unintended groundings or striking of a bridge; (2) intended groundings or striking of a bridge which creates an environmental or safety hazard; (3) a loss of main propulsion, primary steering, or reduction in maneuverability; (4) a material reduction in seaworthiness from fire, flooding or equipment failure; (5) loss of life; (6) personal injury requiring treatment beyond first aid; and (7) property damage exceeding $25,000.

If a “Reportable Marine Casualty” occurs, the vessel´s master, owner, or person in charge must immediately notify the nearest Coast Guard Marine Safety Office (usually by VHF radio or phone). In addition, within 5 days of a “Reportable Marine Casualty,” a written report (on Form CG-2692) must be filed with the Coast Guard. 46 CFR § 4.05-10. In some Districts, upon receipt of the initial verbal report, the Coast Guard will, on a case-by-case basis, grant an informal waiver of filing the written report, but the mariner should ensure he or she has some reliable way to confirm the waiver later.

If a licensed mariner fails to report a “Reportable Marine Casualty,” the Coast Guard could file charges against the mariner for “Violation of Law or Regulation.” A guilty finding could result in license suspension or revocation. 46 CFR § 5.33. Often, the Coast Guard will not formally charge the mariner, but will issue a “Warning Letter.” The mariner is required to accept the warning in writing, after which it becomes part of his/her license file and will be considered in connection with any future proceedings against the mariner´s license. If the mariner refuses to accept the warning in writing, then the Coast Guard may (and probably will) press charges for failure to report the incident.

Even trivial incidents fitting the definition of “Reportable Marine Casualties” must be reported. The Coast Guard has recently filed or threatened to file charges against mariners who failed to report such minor incidents as a towed sailboat touching a soft bottom, and sputtering of an outboard motor. If in doubt about whether to report an incident, the best advice is to report the incident. At a recent seminar, a Coast Guard investigating officer recommended reporting all engine problems other than routine maintenance (even an unscheduled shutting down to change filters or to clean strainers).

It should be noted that the regulations are fickle about which casualties must be reported. For instance, a collision which causes $24,999 in damage, but which does not impair the seaworthiness of the vessel, does not fit the definition of a “Reportable Marine Casualty.” However, if a passenger pricks his finger on a rusty fishhook and goes to the doctor for a tetanus shot, it must be reported immediately and followed up within 5 days with a written report. It is just as important to report those incidents occurring pierside as it is to report incidents which occur underway.

It is highly recommended that all licensed mariners regularly review the regulations concerning marine casualty reporting. They can be found in 46 CFR §§ 4.01 – 4.05. A searchable index of the Code of Federal Regulations is available on the internet at http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/ctr-table-search.html.

© Stephen F. White 2000

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