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Turner v. United States, No. 12-1953

Decided:  November 20, 2013

The Fourth Circuit = affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the United States Coast Guard (“USCG”), in a personal injury and wrongful death action. The Fourth Circuit held that the Coast Guard did not breach a duty of care in attempting to rescue Susan Turner and her husband, Roger Turner, Jr. and, therefore, that the Coast Guard was not liable for Mrs. Turner’s injuries or Mr. Turner’s death.

On July 4, 2007, Mrs. Turner and her husband (collectively, the “Turners”) left home on their private 20-foot long motorboat, intending to watch holiday fireworks. Before leaving, Mr. Turner told his father that the Turners would be going to one of three possible locations. After leaving a party on the Perquimans River, Mrs. Turner fell overboard, nearly one and half miles offshore. At some point thereafter, Mr. Turner also entered the water. The Turners’ boat stayed afloat, drifting downriver. When the Turners did not return home by 9:30 p.m., Mr. Turner’s father called 911. The USCG decided that, due to the number of potential locations and the current deployment of search assets on a confirmed emergency mission (a missing jet ski), the USCG would not initiate an active search for the Turners’ overdue boat at that time. Instead, the USCG would begin making radio calls and would inquire with local marinas later that morning. When the USCG discovered the Turners’ empty boat on the morning of July 5, it launched an air and sea search. During the night of July 4 and into the morning of July 5, Mrs. Turner tread water for nearly 12 hours, surviving by clinging to crab pot buoys. The USCG, despite extensive search efforts, did not find Mr. Turner; his body washed ashore two days later.

On appeal, Ms. Turner first argued that the Coast Guard breached a duty of care in attempting to rescue the Turners. The USCG’s enabling statute, 14 U.S.C. § 88, authorizes the USCG to undertake rescue efforts, but does not impose any affirmative duty to commence such rescue operations. However, pursuant to the Good Samaritan doctrine, once the Coast Guard undertakes a rescue operation, it must act with reasonable care. The Court held that this doctrine sets a high bar to impose liability on a rescuer: the evidence must show that the rescuer failed to exercise reasonable care in a way that worsened the position of the victim. The Turners did not show that the USCG’s actions worsened their position. The thrust of the plaintiff’s case was that the USCG should have done something to alleviate the Turners’ predicament sooner; however, the USCG was under no obligation to do so. Nor did the USCG’s actions worsen the Turners’ position by inducing reliance on the part of either the Turners or a third party. Because the Turners themselves never spoke with the Coast Guard, they could not have relied on representations by the USCG.

Second, Mrs. Turner demanded sanctions premised on the USCG’s alleged deliberate spoliation of evidence, which the court denied. A party seeking sanctions based on the spoliation of evidence must establish that the alleged spoliator had a duty to preserve material evidence. Here, Mrs. Turner said that the USCG wrongfully destroyed audio recordings of telephone calls to the Coast Guard by recycling them and recording over them. The Court found, however, that Mrs. Turner did nothing to trigger a duty to preserve evidence on the part of the USCG. She did not send the USCG a document preservation letter, or any other correspondence threatening litigation.

Third, Mrs. Turner challenged the propriety of USCG’s responses to Turner’s Freedom of Information (“FOIA”) request. A valid FOIA claim requires three components: the agency must have (1) improperly (2) withheld (3) agency records. Here, Mrs. Turner argued that the USCG’s failure to retain voice tapes and emails should stand as proof that the USCG’s search for such responsive documents was inadequate. However, the lack of responsive documents does not signal a failure to search.

Finally, Mrs. Turner argued that the district court deprived her of due process by permitting the USCG to file its summary judgment motion more than 12 months after the deadline for filing dispositive motions. However, the district court gave Mrs. Turner the opportunity to file a brief in opposition to USCG’s motion for summary judgment, and Mrs. Turner did so. Therefore, her due process rights were not violated.

Full Opinion

 – Sarah Bishop