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A Legal Perspective - Jury Instructions in a Boating Accident Lawsuit

By now, many boaters in the Northeast are finishing up with shrink wrapping, double-checking engines, and settling in for the winter. Thoughts may shift from memories of raft-ups and weeknight races to boat shows and good books for the winter. But the learning curve never stands still for boaters. There’s always something new to read about, from navigation electronics to safety equipment. Because of all their knowledge in this area, boaters can be very astute jurors in cases arising on the water. In contrast, if someone who doesn’t spend time around boats is called for jury duty in a boating-related lawsuit, he or she might not be as familiar with such things. While topics such as aids to navigation and running lights are of interest to one planning a weekend cruise up the Hudson, a person who doesn’t own a boat might not give much thought to them. Take for instance someone merely minding his own business as a store manager, summoned to court as a juror and placed in the position of having to decide who was right or wrong in a boating accident. This poor fellow must quickly develop some basic understanding of navigation rules and other aspects of boating. The business of presenting instructions to jurors could seem straightforward enough in most instances. On TV shows, they make it look easy. But in situations where the subject matter involves specialized knowledge, such as boating, things could be a little trickier. In giving instructions, how much information should be presented to jurors? What information is relevant? What information is extraneous, where it might only confuse non-mariners? If this phase of a trial is conducted well, a juror could walk away thinking, “I learned something interesting today and was part of an important decision.” If it’s done poorly, a juror could think, “They’re talking about stand-on vessels, give-way vessels, rule no. 15 for crossing situations, green running lights visible 22.5 degrees abaft the starboard beam, etc. Why can’t they lay this stuff out more clearly?” Jury instructions became a point of contention in an accident involving a personal watercraft (PWC) and a boat on a lake in Kentucky. The PWC operator was in the middle of the lake in choppy water. She decided to come closer to shore. After running parallel to the shoreline for several minutes, she looked over her left shoulder and was struck by the boat, resulting in a fracture of her lower right leg. She denied that the boat was trying to overtake her at the time. The jury was given the following instructions: (1) It was the duty of the boat operator to exercise ordinary care for his own safety and for the safety of other persons using the waterway. This general duty included the following specific duties: (a) keeping a lookout ahead for other vessels in front of him or so near his intended line of travel as to be in danger of collision, (b) having his boat under reasonable control, (c) driving at a speed no greater than was reasonable and prudent, having regard for the waterway traffic and for the condition and use of the waterway (d) exercising ordinary care generally in order to avoid endangering the life or property of any person on the waterway, (e) yielding right-of-way to vessels ahead and to his right; and (f) when overtaking another vessel, yielding right-of-way to that vessel. On appeal, the PWC operator argued that the lower court erred by failing to give her proposed instructions, as federal law imposes additional duties upon a vessel “to assume she is overtaking and act accordingly if there is any doubt” and to remember that “any subsequent alteration of the bearing between the two vessels” does not transform the “overtaking vessel” into a “crossing vessel” or relieve the overtaking vessel of the duty to keep clear of the overtaken vessel “until she is finally past and clear.” In essence, the argument here was that jury instructions should have been based on respective headings and treatment of the boat as an overtaking vessel. The appeals court did not agree. It maintained the lower court’s position that jury instructions were instead to be based on a duty of ordinary care owed by the boat operator. While this case illustrates a court’s examination of jury instructions in a boating accident, it also demonstrates something else. In these types of cases, jury instructions aren’t always cast in stone. It’s up to attorneys to present compelling arguments in court as to why a certain information should or should not be presented to jurors. And speaking of instructions, it seems the calendar is instructing us that another year is drawing to a close. On that note, best wishes for Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year! Ref: Kelley v. Poore, Case No. 2008-CA-002409 Court of Appeals of Kentucky.


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