Florida Federal Court Addresses Watercraft Warnings

Product warnings can be clear, they can be ambiguous, they can be sufficient, but if they are not placed where they can be seen, then they may be all for naught. This remains true when the product at issue is a watercraft. In Thomas v. Bombardier Recreational Prods., Inc., the court denied in part the defendant manufacturer’s motion for partial summary judgment because although the warning would have been visible to a watercraft’s driver, it may not have been so easily seen by a passenger. See — F. Supp. 2d —-, No. 2:07-CV-730-FtM-29SPC, 2010 WL 326113 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 21, 2010). Thus, in that case, the jury will decide the issue.

The case arose out of a May 2007 accident during which an 18 year old female Plaintiff was injured after falling off a personal watercraft (i.e., a jet ski) manufactured by the defendant, Bombardier. She apparently had not planned to ride a watercraft that day until she encountered some friends at the beach who had their own watercraft. In fact, she had never ridden a watercraft before the day of the accident, which she communicated to her friend, the owner of the craft. Wearing a bikini and a life jacket (but no other protective clothing or gear), she, as the passenger, held onto the driver’s waist by way of his life jacket straps. At some point during the ride, she lost her grip and fell backwards into the water. As a result of the fall, she suffered internal injuries which resulted in several surgeries. Plaintiff testified that she herself saw no warning labels.

The personal watercraft did feature warnings under its handlebars (which the court noted were “in front of the driver”), the relevant portions of which read:

WARNING

To reduce the risk of SEVERE INJURY DEATH:

WEAR PROTECTIVE CLOTHING. Severe internal injuries can occur if water is forced into body cavities as a result of falling into water or being near jet thrust nozzle. Normal swimwear does not adequately protect against forceful water entry into lower body opening(s) of males or females. All riders must wear a wet suit bottom or clothing that provides equivalent protection (ss Operator’s Guide). Footwear, gloves, and goggles/glasses are recommended.

To Wear

The operator and passenger(s) must wear protective clothing, including:

-A wet suit bottom or thick, tightly woven, snug fitting clothing that provides equivalent protection. Thin bike shorts for example would not be appropriate. Severe internal injuries can occur if water is forced into body cavities as a result of falling into water or being near jet thrust nozzle. Normal swimwear does not adequately protect against forceful water entry into the lower body opening(s) of males or females.

Id. at *2 (emphasis added). The warning was also accompanied by graphics indicating the appropriate attire to be worn by drivers and passengers of the watercraft.

In light of the language advising passengers what to wear when riding on the watercraft, Bombardier moved for partial summary judgment on Plaintiff’s warning claims. The court first found that the warning itself was “clear, specific, and unambiguous” and that it “it accurately, clearly, and unambiguously warned riders, including a passenger, of the foreseeable dangers of catastrophic injury.” Id. at *3. Nevertheless, the Court denied Bombardier’s motion for summary judgment on those grounds due to the placement of the warning. In so doing, the court concluded that because “the Warning was arguably placed where only the driver could readily observe it . . . a jury question exists as to the adequacy of the Warning based upon its placement.” Id. However, in reciting the facts to the case, the court recounted the Plaintiff’s testimony that she did not recall anything that would have prevented her from seeing a warning label.

Further, it seems that the court may have only considered Plaintiff’s vantage point at the time she was riding the watercraft, not at any time beforehand. The opinion does not recount in detail the facts leading up to the Plaintiff’s riding the watercraft. Presumably, though the warning may not have been fully visible to a passenger at the time that the driver was also upon it, it may have been completely visible at the moments immediately prior to either person actually climbing aboard it. The court did not analyze or elaborate upon those issues.

The Court did grant one portion of Bombardier’s motion. The Plaintiff claimed that Bombardier “violated federal regulations, standards, and statutes pertaining to the obligations of consumer product Manufacturers to recall and make modifications to a product after the manufacturer knows or should have known of a defective feature in such product.” The basis of Plaintiff’s claim was that Bombardier assumed the duty to replace the Warning label by virtue of a provision in the Operator’s Guide. In rejecting this claim, the court found that Florida law imposed no such requirement and that Plaintiff “simply place[d] far more weight on this replacement provision than it will bear.” Id.

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