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Legal Perspective - Can A Boat Be Defective?

February 27, 2020

Here’s an interesting question. Can a boat be defective? The area of law that deals with defective products is a fascinating one. It’s known as product liability law and covers a wide range of lawsuits, from medical devices to high-speed failures of tires. The term “product liability” could bring to mind those late-night TV ads about dangerous prescription drugs, or the safety-related woes of Chevy Corvairs back in the 1960s.
When a product is deemed to be defective in the eyes of the law, that means something is wrong in the way it was manufactured or designed. It could also mean the product didn’t carry adequate warnings about its inherent risks. Some readers might point to features on their vessels they feel are “defective,” whether it’s an auxiliary engine stuffed beneath a companionway with virtually no means of getting to it for the simplest of maintenance… or a flat bottom on a skiff that loosens dental fillings when bouncing violently even in mildly choppy seas. But those things don’t generally rise to the level of a legal defect in this context. That’s because such defects don’t usually cause serious injury to the user.
That’s why we don’t tend to think of production vessels built by recognized manufacturers as being defective in this sense. But a recent lawsuit did raise the theory as a legal cause of action. It involved the capsizing of a 23-foot center console off the coast of South Carolina. The person who filed the lawsuit had purchased the boat from its previous owner.
Shortly after acquiring the boat, the new owner took it out on a lake. During the course of operating the radio, the battery died. The battery was recharged, but other corrective measures were not taken. Soon after that, the new owner took the boat out again, heading out into the open Atlantic.
The battery died again, but this time, the boat was 20 to 25 miles offshore. Unfortunately, that meant the bilge pump stopped running. The VHF radio couldn’t reach anyone and there was no emergency communication equipment aboard. The boat eventually took on water and capsized, sending its crew into the sea. The Coast Guard picked everyone up some 22 hours later. It’s fortunate that the incident occurred in July and not earlier in the season when water temperatures would have been colder.
The vessel owner brought three claims against the manufacturer. These were based on theories of negligence, strict liability (product liability), and breach of warranty. Because the incident took place on navigable waters, the owner asserted that it fell under admiralty jurisdiction.
The owner argued that there was a defect in the boat. This was based on evidence from his expert alleging lack of a watertight seal on the boat’s fish boxes, resulting in water accumulating in the bilge. But this argument was challenged by the manufacturer. It became difficult for the owner’s expert to demonstrate with certainty that the problem with the seals could not have developed after the capsize.
To succeed in such a lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden of proving certain things. This means they must present evidence that there was some defect and that the alleged defect was the cause of the damages. (Dandridge v. Crane Co., No. 2:12-CV-00484-DCN, 2016). As for the negligence portion of the lawsuit, that hinges upon showing that a breach of some sort of duty resulted in injury to the claimant.
In terms of the vessel owner’s warranty theories, they were also challenged. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the manufacturer. The manufacturer successfully argued that there was no triable issue of fact, hence satisfying its summary judgment motion. In plain English, that meant the manufacturer proved to the court that there was no defect in its vessel.
Product liability lawsuits present interesting legal issues, which often require a high level of technical proof. In some cases, such as an exploding bottle of a carbonated beverage, the legal proof could be obvious to a ten-year old. But when it comes to complex items such as boats, it can sometimes be challenging to prove that there was a defect on the part of the manufacturer or designer.
 
Ref: Judy v. Mako Marine International, Inc. et al, Civil Action No. 2:18-cv-1843-RMG,
United States District Court of South Carolina, Charleston Division.


 

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