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Case of the Overcrowded Lifeboat
“Several months ago, a 40-foot chartered yacht left Long Beach headed for Hawaii. On board were about forty passengers and crew. The cruise proceeded without incident for two days, but the third saw the yacht confront a terrific storm of unexpected strength and severity. The yacht was badly damaged by smashing waves and eventually began to list and then sink. Because the ship’s radio was knocked out soon after the storm hit, the crew were unable to call for help. The captain and some of the passengers were swept away and drowned. The first mate, two crew members, and a number of passengers managed to clamber into a lifeboat and weather the tail end of the storm. (The yacht regularly kept two lifeboats, but during the emergency one was found to be unseaworthy and thus could not be used.)
Adrift in the lifeboat, the remnant of the crew surveyed the situation: the boat could seat twenty people comfortably; twenty-four could ride in the boat without serious danger of causing the craft to founder. Every additional passenger added above twenty-four, however, significantly increased the risk that the boat would capsize or sink (especially in rough seas), yet there was no way of telling precisely how many more people the boat could accommodate while still affording those aboard any real chance of survival. The total number of people now in the boat was twenty-three.
The ship had sunk during the early hours of the morning, and with the first light it immediately became apparent to those in the boat that same survivors still lived and were swimming in the water nearby. When these unfortunates saw that a lifeboat had endured the ordeal, they made for it as quickly as they could. Soon six desperate souls were yelling to those in the boat, asking to be helped aboard. The first mate now had a dilemma: how many, if any, of the swimmers should he try to save? After some moments of seemingly agonizing reflection of his part, the first mate himself reached out and helped aboard the strongest among those in the water. Many of the people already in the boat were older – retirees on their way to lounge in the lazy Hawaiian sun. The mate knew that their only hope was to row toward the main shipping route (from which they had been blown some distance by the storm) in hopes of being spotted. He needed, he felt, a robust man to help row; hence his choice. The mate refused the remaining five permission to enter. At one point, when two swimmers tried to climb aboard anyway, the mate ordered two crew members to push them off. This they did. The bodies of the five were found later by the search-and-rescue team. One of the deceased was a woman three weeks pregnant.
After three days of hard rowing and a narrow escape from a sudden squall, the lifeboat was spotted by a commercial fishing boat and all aboard were returned safely to shore. After investigating the matter, the Coast Guard took the first mate and the two crew members into custody; they were eventually turned over to civil authorities and indicted in state court on six counts of murder.
Because of the unusual nature of the case, the defendants have waived their right to a jury trial, and the law in this case is brought before you. The relevant law in this case consists of two statutes, one related to the crime charged and one concerning the defense relied upon by the mate and crew:
- In your state, the penal code defines murder as follows: “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought” (that is, with the purpose or intent to kill).
- Your state defines the defense of “general justification” as follows: “Conduct that the actor believes to be necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another is justifiable, provided that the harm or evil sought to be avoided by such conduct is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged.”
- United States v. Holmes 1 Wall Jr. 1, 226 Fed. Cas. (1842).
- This case involves a sailing ship, the William Brown, which set sail from Liverpool bound for Philadelphia carrying British immigrants to the United States. Off New-foundland, the ship struck an iceberg and quickly began to sink. The captain, crew, and passengers abandoned ship. Most of the survivors, the ship’s mate, and several sailors wound up in a “longboat” (about 22 1/2 feet long). Soon overcrowded, the boat held forty-one, but was meant to carry only a fraction of that number.
- On the second day adrift, the sea grew rough, several holes appeared in the over-strained seams, and the mate at last gave the order “men, fall to work, the boat must be lightened or we will all be lost.” One robust sailor, Holmes, went to work. Vowing not to throw over any women or children and “not to part man and wife,” Holmes and his fellow crewmen threw overboard close to a dozen men. Subsequently, the survivors were rescued and Holmes charged with murder. Holmes was convicted on the grounds that, although “the law overlooks the taking of life under circumstances of imperious necessity,” passengers must be given priority over sailors, and lots must be case in determining who should be sacrificed. Neither principle had been honored.”
– David M. Adams, Philosophical Problems in the Law (4)
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