Jury Awards $31 Million Verdict In A Defective Boat Design
Defendant contested liability and claimed that it was the operator of the boat's fault because he was under the influence of alcohol and denied their boat was defective. Plaintiffs were able to prove during the course of trial that the claimed defect in the boat resulted in it taking on water in a fashion that the operator would not be able to observe. Substantial time was spent at trial proving up the nature and extent of the injuries suffered by the 23-year-old victim. This matter was tried with the assistance of Robert Bale, an attorney in the firm. The pretrial offer was $2 million.
A Chico, California jury found that a new boat design marketed as the biggest wakeboard boat available was defective — and at fault — in a stunning rejection of the manufacturer's defense, awarding more than $31 million to a 27-year-old catastrophically injured young woman.
Although MasterCraft's X-45 wakeboard boat was billed as a "the most spacious 24-footer on the inboard market," the jury concluded that was one of the design features that led to the injuries sustained by Niki Bell and Bethany Wallenburg, passengers on the boat. The jury deliberated for two and a half days before determining that the design of the X-45 was defective. The bow of the boat swamped while moving less than five mph on the way back to pick up a fallen wakeboarder during the 2006 accident on Lake Oroville in Northern California. At some point during the course of the slow speed return trip, the bow of the boat submerged unexpectedly; Bell and Wallenburg were swept out of the boat and into the spinning propeller.
When the boat ran over her, the propellers struck Niki Bell three times in the head, slicing into her skull and cutting into her brain and through the front of her face. The 27-year-old lost her left eye and part of her frontal lobe. Because of her injuries, Bell requires assistance with acts of daily living for the rest of her life. Bell was awarded $30.9 million for her injuries.
The other passenger, Bethany Wallenburg, was able to grab the windshield before being washed out of the boat. As a result, she entered the water feet first. The jury awarded Wallenburg $530,688 for injuries caused when her elbow and lower back were struck multiple times by the propeller. "The jury found that the design of the boat, which was based on a combination of design components from two different boat models, was defective, and that the defect caused the injuries sustained by Niki," said Bell's attorney, Roger A. Dreyer, senior partner at Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, a personal injury law firm in Sacramento.
During the 49-day trial, a former MasterCraft employee involved in the design testified that combining the hull design from one boat and the deck/cockpit of another created the X-45. A number of MasterCraft engineers and personnel involved in the design process testified that the company never tested the X-45 to determine its performance characteristics when loaded at or near its advertised capacity of 18 people. "The evidence was that MasterCraft combined design features from two existing boats — the hull of the X-80 and the deck of the X-Star- but did not evaluate the resulting design to determine whether it would perform safely or as advertised when loaded to capacity," said Dreyer.
During the wakeboarding run, additional passengers moved to the oversized, "superfly" bow, advertised by MasterCraft as the largest on the market in this class of boats, to help the boat get up "on plane." The undisputed evidence at trial was that MasterCraft, headquartered in Vonore, Tennessee, provided no specific information about how to safely distribute persons on the boat, or about the risks of overloading.
The evidence also demonstrated that the design of the 24-foot-long X-45 includes a hole in the anchor locker that allows water to enter directly into the hull where it would collect beneath the deck. The evidence at trial was that users of the boat would be unaware the vessel was taking on water, which adds weight to the load the boat is carrying. According to plaintiffs' experts, any tendency that additional weight might add to the bow's tendency to dip below the water line is compounded in the X-45 by a reverse sheer, which means the line of the bow from the middle of the boat to the front of the bow curves toward the water, instead of away from it. MasterCraft's executive in charge of marketing testified that the "reverse sheer" was used for cosmetic purposes. MasterCraft also offered testimony that the reverse sheer was intended to increase the driver's visibility looking forward.
In any event, the evidence was that the reverse sheer had the effect of reducing the distance between the hole in the anchor locker and the water line during normal, foreseeable operations, which increased the likelihood of the boat taking on water. As MasterCraft's own accident reconstruction expert admitted at trial, this meant that when the bow of the boat dips into the water, water would flow directly into the hull.
Dreyer argued that the evidence showed the design of the boat was not safe when loaded to capacity based on a combination of factors, including a miscalculated capacity label indicating 18 people or 2,928 pounds. MasterCraft's own expert admitted this calculation was an error during Dreyer's cross-examination of him. Other evidence of a design defect included the oversized bow, the hole in the anchor locker/bow of the boat, the reverse sheer design which increased the boat's tendency to take on water at the bow, and a lack of adequate handrails in the bow. Plaintiffs' experts were critical of MasterCraft for failing to conduct adequate testing of the boat prior to putting it on the market, and for failing to document the design process for the X-45.
MasterCraft presented evidence that the driver and owner of the boat was 100 percent at fault for the incident. The driver admitted he had consumed a number of beers before the incident. MasterCraft also argued that the design of the boat was safe, and the incident was due to an unforeseeable misuse of the boat by the driver, who positioned up to a dozen people in the bow during the wakeboard run that led up to the incident. According to MasterCraft's experts, that distribution of people overloaded the bow, which ultimately caused it to submerge. MasterCraft also presented evidence that the driver panicked and added throttle after the bow started to submerge, which drove the bow even further below the waterline.
The jury, in an 11-1 ruling, found that the boat's design defects outweighed its benefits, and that the design of the boat was 80 percent responsible for the plaintiffs' injuries. The jury also attributed 20 percent fault to the driver/owner of the X-45. In civil cases, nine members of a 12-person jury must agree on the verdict. Both Bell and Mercer had been students at California State University, Chico, when the incident occurred. Because of her extensive injuries — including permanent brain damage — Bell's family was particularly thankful for the verdict.
Attorney Dreyer noted that the jury's finding "represents an outstanding example of how the civil justice system is supposed to work to come to an understanding of what happened based on the evidence, and then act in an appropriate manner to protect and safeguard the interests of the injured parties if a manufacturer is found to be at fault."
Robert Bale, representing Bethany Wallenburg, commented, "The evidence supported a determination by the jury that the design of the X-45 was defective, and that the manufacturer did not adequately test the boat at its rated capacity before marketing it to the public." Bale noted that, on the evidence presented in this case, "that decision created a situation where the end users become the test subjects."
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