The Plaintiff, Bill Goodhue, was the owner of a vessel called ‘Warlock’ (Vessel), a 12 metre ferro-cement ketch yacht. He purchased the Vessel in 1983 for $17,500 and lived on it intermittently.
He anchored the Vessel in Marine Stadium, on the Spit, at Southport, Queensland. In August 2003, he left Australia for New Zealand, having secured the Vessel with a Danforth style anchor. He asked two friends to keep an eye on it while he was overseas. The Plaintiff was a member of the Volunteer Marine Rescue (the Defendant) and had taped his membership card to the Vessel’s porthole, with the name and mobile number of one of the friends.
On 25 October 2003, the Defendant responded to an emergency call from a nearby vessel, ‘Manuhere’. The Plaintiff’s Vessel was dragging its anchor. The volunteers pulled up the anchor (an Admiralty anchor and not a Danforth) and re-anchored the Vessel. After moving it, the water depth was checked with a depth sounder. The volunteers checked on the position of the Vessel later in the day and were satisfied it was holding its anchor. It was seen up to a week later, in the same position.
Over a week after it was moved, the Vessel ran aground, resulting in damage to its interior, electrics and contents.
Issue for determination
The Plaintiff’s case was that Defendant breached its duty of care to him, because the volunteers moved the Vessel without his permission. He argued that it was re-anchored without sufficient depth and too close to the western shore in Marine Stadium. The Plaintiff said that his Vessel was simply yawing on its anchor and that the volunteers should have directed the Manuhere to move instead.
The Court made these findings:
- It was necessary for the volunteers to move the Vessel and if the volunteers had not taken that action, the Vessel would have struck the Manuhere.
- The scope of the duty of care owed by the Defendant did not extend to contacting the Plaintiff.
- The Defendant’s duty was limited to re-anchoring the Vessel in a competent manner and it did so.
In the judgment, McGinness DCJ said that a broader duty would have a devastating effect for the operations of the Volunteer Marine Rescue.
The Court also expressed the view that where the law gives immunity to an individual volunteer from civil liability, that immunity should extend to the volunteer organisation for whom they do volunteer work. However, as the Plaintiff failed to prove that the actions of the volunteers actually caused the Vessel to run aground, this finding did not determine the case.
The Plaintiff’s claim was dismissed with costs. The decision is of interest because it is the first judgment that has considered whether an organisation using volunteers could be immune from civil liability under Queensland law.