Boats and Watercraft – Products Liability Cases

Boats and watercraft that can lead to serious injury if defective include canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, sailboats, fishing boats, personal watercraft like jet skis, pontoon boats, speedboats, house boats, yachts, and cruise ships-in other words, they run the gamut from simple, non-motorized crafts to exotic luxury liners. The law of products liability applies equally to all of these boats and watercraft. Motorized watercraft present most of the same issues that other watercraft products do, as well as many of those presented by other defective motorized vehicles, like automobiles.

Because many products liability cases involving boats and watercraft arise out of injuries caused not by defectively designed or manufactured products but by products that are potentially hazardous if misused, plaintiffs often base their claims on a failure-to-warn theory. Whether the case is based on a claim that the product is defective or that the manufacturer breached its duty to warn, the plaintiff cannot recover unless he or she can prove that the defect or failure actually caused the injury.

Makers of boats and watercraft have a duty to warn potential users about the possible dangers of their products. That duty does not usually apply, however, to dangers that are obvious or known, as opposed to concealed. For instance, a sailboat manufacturer may have no duty to warn against sailing during inclement weather. Sellers and reconditioners of hazardous products, too, may be held liable for failing to warn because, like manufacturers, they are in a better position than consumers to control the dangers arising out of product defects.

As in all products liability cases, a variety of defenses are available to the manufacturer of boats and watercraft, such as arguing that the alleged defect was not the proximate cause of the injury, the plaintiff was contributory or comparatively negligent, the plaintiff assumed the risk, the plaintiff misused the product, the plaintiff altered or modified the product, or the defendant complied with all applicable industry and safety standards. Some other defenses, however, are specific to the watercraft context, such as that the operator was carrying a passenger on a craft intended for only one person. The plaintiff may counter this argument by asserting that the design of the vehicle gives the appearance that passengers are allowed, even when warning decals declare otherwise.

Advertisements for watercraft can create warranties about the quality of the product and can be admitted as evidence of normal use. A defendant would have a hard time arguing, for example, that it could not anticipate its jet skis being used to jump large wakes when its television commercials for the product depict just such an activity. And an advertisement declaring and demonstrating a speedboat’s stability when turning tight corners represents that the product is capable of performing in a similar manner for the average user. In either case, admission of the advertisements into evidence will help support a plaintiff’s claims against the manufacturer.

Products liability lawsuits involving boats and watercraft serve not only the need to compensate victims of accidents involving defective products, but they can also serve as a watchdog over manufacturers to ensure product safety. The first goal is achieved through compensatory damage awards, which compensate victims for their medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The watchdog goal is accentuated through punitive damage awards, which go beyond compensating the victim and are instead intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct by the same manufacturer in the future and by other manufacturers of similar products. Punitive damages awards can reach into the millions of dollars, so it is easy to see how they can be effective deterrents.

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