Court ruling could muddy motor standards


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

another state.

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

every model.

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

recreational boats.

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.


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


Safe voyages.

* MIKE WHITEHEAD is the Pilot's boating and harbor columnist.

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