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The Dangers of Exploring a Shipwreck

On behalf of Joel Rhine of Rhine Law Firm, P.C. posted September 12, 2017

Recently, a 46-year-old British diver, Steven Slater, was with a group diving off of the Massachusetts coast to visit the Andrea Doria wreck site. Slater was pulled from the ocean unconscious and pronounced dead after a likely equipment malfunction. The group was deeply saddened, but stated that Slater had died doing what he loved to do.

A Short History of NC Shipwrecks

The coastal waters of North Carolina have been referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the number of historical shipwrecks. In the 1800s, lighthouses were erected to assist ships in better avoiding hazardous conditions. The U.S. Life-Saving Service was formed in 1848 to prevent these disasters at sea. Some of the more exciting reasons for these historical wrecks include:

  • Hurricanes: Since 1851, approximately 83 “tropical cyclones,” the most severe hurricanes, have made landfall on North Carolina.
  • Wreckers: People who lured ships onto the rocks with false lights, then looted the cargo.
  • Pirates: Our coast’s many small inlets served as homes to pirates; the legendary Blackbeard was believed to dock in the Outer Banks. However, pirates preferred NOT to scuttle ships, since they were prizes in themselves.

Usually, shipwrecks were (and are) caused by natural weather conditions: storms, rough seas, and collisions—either between two ships, or a ship and the shore.

There are approximately 120 documented shipwrecks near North Carolina. Many divers visit these wrecks, and advocates seek to protect and respect the sites.

Shipwreck Diving Dangers

Shipwreck diving is inherently dangerous for the following reasons:

  • Similar to exploring underwater caves, divers can get lost inside the hull.
  • Diving to depths of 20+ feet causes breathing difficulties.
  • Excessive nitrogen can accumulate in the bloodstream in what’s known as “the bends.”
  • A mesmerized diver can forget to monitor his air gauges—until it is too late.
  • Sharks aren’t likely to attack, but they are fully capable of doing so.

In the “wild,” you as a diver aren’t covered by the law, except in special circumstances. For example, an equipment malfunction. Though taking that dive is an assumed risk, where a whole number of things can go wrong, sometimes someone else is still liable if they do.

However, there’s also the Landowner Limited Liability Law. Those who allow access to areas, without charging an entrance fee, are not required to maintain safe conditions or to warn people on the water of potential dangers. These landowners are shielded from civil liability for accidents unless they caused the injuries willfully or with malicious intent. This includes state and local governments.

The Jones Act

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) is a federal statute allowing injured “seamen” to seek financial compensation when acts of negligence were the cause. To qualify, you must spend 30% of your time off-shore aboard a U.S. vessel. The “maintenance & cure” relief available includes healthcare costs, medical equipment, medication, and compensation for basic expenses. Claim examples include:

  • Failure to maintain realistically safe working conditions
    • Example: faulty equipment, slippery floors, etc.
  • Conduct deemed reckless or unprofessional
  • Using vessels that are not seaworthy
  • Failing to maintain standard conduct
  • Not providing medical care to the injured
  • Mandating that workers execute dangerous activities

North Carolina Maritime Attorneys

When severe injuries are caused by someone else’s negligent or reckless actions, the law allows victims to seek financial compensation. Rhine Law Firm, P.C., has deep experience with maritime law. Contact our office today at (866) 772-9960 for a free initial consultation.

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