$23.2 million verdict for a Lake Tahoe Propeller Strike Injury in Admiralty Matter
Roger Dreyer and Anthony Garilli obtained a $23.2 million verdict in a court trial for a 22 year old woman who suffered an above the knee amputation of her leg. This is the largest reported personal injury verdict in the U.S. Eastern District in a decision rendered by a District Court judge. This verdict resulted from a two-staged trial in 2019, one to determine the liability of the defendant and the 2nd trial six-months later in the damages phase.
On July 24, 2016, the young woman and a group of 12 coworkers boarded a rental boat on Lake Tahoe for a morning of boating and tubing. The Marina provided the group with a 24’ boat with a sterndrive engine and dual counter-rotating propellers. The propellers were located just 17 inches away from the bottom of the ladder when lowered into and beneath the surface of the water. Despite renting the group a tube for towing watersports, the Marina did not give any safety instructions to the passengers on tubing. Additionally, they were not instructed how to safely get into or out of the water, nor were they shown the ladder, propellers, and how close the two were to each other beneath the surface. As Anthony Garilli, who deposed all 12 coworkers, indicated, “The lack of instruction on the topic of safety to these folks was alarming. The Marina knew that these people were inexperienced yet took no precautions to educate them on the dangers of the proximity of the ladder to the blades of the propeller.” Indeed, the failure to provide safety instructions of any kind to the passengers ended up being a critical fact that the Judge found in establishing liability against the Marina.
Once out on the lake, members of the group began to take turns tubing, including our client. After she finished her turn tubing, the operator brought the boat around to pick her up. She swam to the back of the boat, unaware of any danger. The operator had inadvertently missed neutral when he stopped the boat and instead placed the boat’s gear in idle reverse. None of the passengers were aware or felt the movement of the boat because it was in water that was rough and with swells of up to two feet. Consequently, when our client reached for the ladder, her legs were swept into the dual counter-rotating propellers where she remained trapped for nearly 45 minutes waiting for first responders to arrive. She fought desperately to remain conscious despite the extraordinary pain that she was suffering as the boat rocked up and down, dragging her under the water. Roger Dreyer, who examined the client in both the liability and damage phases of the case, reported that, “In my nearly 40 years of trying cases, I have never seen a more dramatic and powerful example of a human being’s will to survive. She had a shattered tibia and skin de-gloved from her leg that was trapped between the blades with water washing over her face, yet she never gave up. Her will to live inspired Anthony and me to do all we could for her in this case.” She was eventually freed and airlifted to Renown Medical Center in Reno, Nevada where doctors had to amputate her right leg above the knee due to the extensive and irreparable damage to her leg.
A lawsuit was filed against the operator of the boat and the marina who rented the boat to the group in federal court which allowed for legal theories that arguably are not available in state court. After a 10-day trial on liability, followed by a 9-day trial on damages, the trial team of Roger Dreyer and Anthony Garilli obtained a $23.2 million verdict on behalf of the young woman.
During the case, the Marina invoked an 1853 Admiralty Statute called The Limitation of Liability Act (LOLA), claiming it could limit its liability to the value of the vessel, which it asserted was only worth $9,500. That defense argument, along with many others put forward by defense counsel, were ultimately defeated and rejected by the Court. The defense filed multiple motions to get the case dismissed under a variety of legal theories, all of which had to be vigorously opposed. Ultimately, through the efforts of her counsel, the young victim got her day in court and prevailed.
After trial, the District Court ruled that the Marina knowingly maintained a policy of failing to provide safety instructions to its tubing customers like our client, despite being aware of the potentially deadly dangers they faced, both generally and while boarding this particular boat. As for the Marina’s claim it should have been able to limit its liability to $9,500, the Court held that LOLA “does not exist so that a marina owner may gamble on the safety of his customers, then feign ignorance when that bet goes sour.” “This case was an extraordinary experience for us to try for such a wonderful and deserving young woman,” Garilli stated, “and the fact that the Court allocated a portion of liability against the Marina was one of the most powerful results of the case.” Dreyer echoed Garilli’s comments and stated “the decision is noteworthy by this Court in that it is a message to the Marina industry that it must take the necessary steps to educate its renters on dangers that they would have no way of knowing existed. We believe that Marinas can no longer simply blame the renter and that the industry has to share the responsibility with people they put in their vessels on safety practices. After all, who has the knowledge and information better than the industry that is charging others to utilize its equipment?”
The Marina filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Marina industry had joined by filing their own separate brief in support of reversing the verdict. While this matter was on appeal, the defendant requested a mediation which resulted in a confidential settlement for the parties in early 2020. Mr. Dreyer and Mr. Garilli are hopeful that this decision by this courageous Court will send a strong message to the Marina industry that it must first and foremost consider the safety of its customers, many of whom have little or no experience, before sending them out on its rental vessels.