A few summers ago in Tennessee, Rex and Jeanne Sprietsma, husband
and wife, were enjoying a day's outing aboard a boat when things went
from good to tragic. Jeanne fell overboard and received fatal wounds
after being struck by the outboard motor's propeller. Their boat on
that July 1995 day was being powered by a mid-size 115-horsepower
Mercury Marine outboard motor.
Rex Sprietsma sued Mercury Marine for not preventing the injuries
from the propeller that helped cause his wife's death. Sprietsma
claimed the Mercury Marine's outboard motor did not have a propeller
guard and thus the motor was unreasonably dangerous.
In December, the Supreme Court made a decision in Sprietsma vs.
Mercury Marine that may require all boat manufacturers to satisfy
different safety standards for recreational vessels and associated
equipment in each state. Additionally, in the court's lack of
understanding on this issue, the court did not comment on the
appropriateness of propeller guards.
The Supreme Court's ruling, which overturned the decisions of the
Illinois Supreme Court and two lower courts, set precedence that the
Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 does not preempt state tort law.
Now, rather than the one set of federal safety standards set by
the U.S. Coast Guard, marine manufacturers may also have to satisfy
standards that can be imposed by each states independently. This will
lead to confusion and increased liability on the part of the
manufacturers, since one state may impose standards different from
Therefore, if you use your boat in neighboring states' waterways,
not in the state where you originally purchased the watercraft, the
vessel might be out of compliance.
Naturally, the consumer will ultimately pay the price, as it will
behoove manufacturers to build to one set of standards, so every
independent regulation imposed by a state will be incorporated into
Cost is not the only issue. This may open a Pandora's box.
The Coast Guard governs the uniform boat manufacturing standards,
and the marine manufacturers decide whether building a boat or
manufacturing an accessory follow those codes. The Coast Guard
researches each proposed regulation, solicits feedback from the
marine community and adheres to international decrees by the
International Maritime Organization.
To date, the Coast Guard has concluded that the evidence is
unclear whether prop guards are beneficial or have inherent dangers,
and federal regulations do not mandate propeller guards on
In Sprietsma's lawsuit, there was insufficient safety evidence
whether a prop guard would have prevented this tragedy. Further,
Mercury Marine had followed the standards imposed by the Coast Guard.
The Supreme Court's decision begs to differ. If a car's tire runs
over you, causing injuries, can you sue the car manufacturer? This
ruling now allows state judges and politicians, who may know very
little about boating, to set boating safety standards instead of the
Coast Guard, the experts in these matters.
Also, I feel there has to be liability assumed by the vessel
operator and the passengers, in this case his wife. Was the operator
safely operating the vessel, and how did she manage to fall out of
the boat? It is easy in injury or fatality cases to point the finger
at a manufacturer, a government agency or private entities.
If prop guards are needed, then let the Coast Guard establish the
regulations and mandate the design and placement, not each state.
The court did not find Brunswick Corporation, parent company of
the defendant, Mercury Marine, liable for the incident that led to
this case. This ruling allows the case to move forward in the
Illinois state court.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Before you leave the dock, take the time to advise your guests
aboard how to be safe when underway, such as remaining seated and not
hanging over the sides or bow. You as the operator must act
responsibly to keep the watercraft under control, and follow the
slogan of Safe Boating Week -- "Boat Smart from the Start. Wear Your
* MIKE WHITEHEAD is the Pilot's boating and harbor columnist.
Send him your harbor and marine-related thoughts and story
suggestions by e-mail to Mike@BoathouseTV.com or visit