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October 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Disabled Diver Sues DAN and Coast Guard for Negligence

from the October, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In May 2005, Timothy Hogan was making his second dive at 122 feet off Tampa Bay when his vision went blurry. He ignored the symptoms when he looked at his dive computer and saw he had seven minutes to surface safely. Hogan had speared a seven-pound mangrove snapper that he wanted to reel in. So he stayed where he was, despite the flashes of light he saw when he blinked.

Big mistake. Hogan’s symptoms worsened back on the boat, as tingling in his toes rose into his legs. The boat captain called Divers Alert Network’s emergency hotline and a Coast Guard rescue helicopter was dispatched. But Hogan didn’t reach the hospital until five hours later and despite 11 treatments in a hyperbaric chamber, he is now paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors say too much pressure on his lungs caused a gas embolism in his arteries, damaging his spinal cord beyond repair.

Last March, Hogan filed a civil lawsuit against DAN and the Coast Guard, stating they mismanaged his rescue by leaving him waiting while he lost all feeling in his legs. His lawsuit stated that while the Coast Guard is not required to rescue divers, “when it does so voluntarily, it assumes the duty to perform such rescues with reasonable skill.” Hogan also says he would have avoided injury if the helicopter had not gotten lost on the way to his boat, and the time lapse caused his paralysis. DAN decided to settle, and its official statement is: “Divers Alert Network made no admission of negligence, liability or fault in this case. Mr. Hogan agreed to respond to inquiries that DAN responded promptly and appropriately to his emergency request for medical assistance.”

Other injured divers have tried to sue the Coast Guard without luck, and Federal law does not require the agency to rescue scuba divers. In 2004, another disabled Florida diver sued the Coast Guard, contending he could have avoided injury if it had provided him with emergency care on its rescue boat. The Coast Guard argued that under federal law it has broad discretion to decide if and how it provides emergency help to divers. Florida’s Federal district court ruled for the Coast Guard and despite the diver’s appeals, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But a month before trial, the Coast Guard agreed to mediation and settled with Hogan for a confidential sum. “Divers do indeed have recourse against the government if it fails to use reasonable care in a rescue,” Hogan’s attorney Matthew Mudano told Undercurrent.“Although there are certain restrictions on suits against the United States, it is held to a standard of reasonable conduct just like a private entity.”

But he cautioned that divers need to be prepared for a long, expensive battle. “Most cases against the government are expensive and time consuming. Unless the injury is severe, it may not be economically feasible to pursue the case. In Mr. Hogan’s case, he is completely disabled, and will face a lifetime of debt and medical bills.”

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