Big Verdict in Texas Boat Propeller Strike Case

In what was reportedly the first successful case against the boating industry brought by a person injured by a motor, and in a case that could have huge implications in the industry, a Texas federal jury this month awarded a teen Plaintiff $3.8 million in damages after the his leg was severed by a boat propeller. The case, heard by federal district court Judge Sam Sparks, was actually tried thrice, as the first two trials resulted in hung juries. Brochtrup v. Mercury Marine, C/A No. 1:07-CV-00643-SS, Western District of Texas, Austin Division (April 5, 2010). We here at Abnormal Use have previously reported on a watercraft warning case here.

The Plaintiff, then 18 years old, was boating with friends on Lake Austin in the summer of 2005. He had just returned to the boat from wakeboarding when the tow rope fell in the water. When the Plaintiff jumped back in the water at the rear of the boat to retrieve the line, his friend and 18-year-old driver put the boat in reverse. The boat’s propeller caught the top of the Plaintiff’s leg and twisted it around, causing extensive blood loss and eventual loss of his leg. See local news coverage of the accident here .

The Plaintiff filed suit against the parent company of Sea Ray Boats, alleging that the boat should have been equipped with safety devices, such as guards or covers, to prevent the plaintiff from becoming entangled or stuck. However, the U.S. marine industry reportedly has fought the idea installing prop guards on motors because no design has ever been proven safe or effective for maneuvering boats. The U.S. Coast Guard has agreed, and has consistently refused to order boat and engine builders to install prop guards.

Apparently, though, this Texas jury didn’t buy it. It found both the Plaintiff and the driver (who was not named a defendant) of the boat each to be 17% negligent, and the defendant 66% negligent and responsible for the injury. Its award of damages included $200,000 for past physical pain and anguish, $200,000 for future physical pain and mental anguish, and $100,000 for disfigurement.

The decision has naturally drawn harsh criticism from the industry, which points out the common-sense factor at work here and the fact that all motors are “emblazoned” with pronounced warnings. It likens the facts on this case to the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee suit. This case, which Brunswick Corp has said it intends to appeal, may be one to watch, as it surely will have a profound effect on the boating industry.