Prop Guard Case Ruling Opens Door

Wednesday, December 04, 2002
The Supreme Court decision in Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine may require boat manufacturers to satisfy different safety standards for recreational vessels and associated equipment in all 50 states, rather than the one set of federal safety standards they currently meet. In the Sprietsma case, Mrs. Sprietsma accidentally fell overboard after the boat in which she was riding turned, and was struck by the propeller, suffering fatal injuries. Mr. Sprietsma claimed that the Mercury Marine outboard motor was unreasonably dangerous because it did not include a propeller guard. The Coast Guard has concluded that, to date, the evidence is unclear regarding the possible benefits and inherent dangers of propeller guards, and has not mandated propeller guards on recreational boats.

In overturning the decisions of the Illinois Supreme Court and two lower courts, the Court ruled that the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, which maintains consistent, national safety standards (as set by the US Coast Guard), does not preempt state tort law. "We're disappointed with the ruling," said Monita Fontaine, NMMA Vice President of Government Relations. "We believe there is clear and necessary federal preemption of boating safety regulations by the Coast Guard, as the lower courts found. I fear this may lead to a patchwork of inconsistent regulations in multiple jurisdictions, with safety standards being set by juries rather than safety experts."

"The Coast Guard is charged by Congress to set uniform standards that protect boaters," said Fontaine, "and boat manufacturers rely on those standards in their manufacturing processes. In this case, the Coast Guard set an implied standard by determining there was insufficient safety evidence to justify promulgating a regulation regarding propeller guards." The Court did not find Brunswick Corporation, parent company of the defendant, Mercury Marine, to be liable for the incident that led to this case; this ruling allows the case to move forward in the Illinois state court. The Court also did not comment on the appropriateness of propeller guards.

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