U.S. boat law doesn't pre-empt state suits

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court made it easier Tuesday for consumers to sue over boating accidents, ruling unanimously that wrongful injury and death suits in state courts are not pre-empted by federal law.

In July 1995, Jeanne Sprietsma died in a boating accident on a lake along the Kentucky-Tennessee border. She was riding in an 18-foot boat equipped with a 115-horsepower outboard motor manufactured by Mercury Marine, a division of the Brunswick Corp.


According to court records, the woman fell overboard when the boat turned and she was struck by the propeller.

Because Sprietsma was an Illinois resident and the boat had been purchased in that state, her husband filed suit in Illinois against Mercury Marine. The suit contended that Brunswick had made an "unreasonably dangerous product" because, among other things, the motor was not protected by a propeller guard.

A state judge and eventually the Illinois Supreme Court dismissed the case, saying the husband's common-law wrongful death suit was pre-empted by the Federal Boat Safety Act.

Congress passed the FBSA in 1971 to improve boating safety and to set national standards for boat construction and performance.


Since 1990, the Coast Guard has not interpreted the FBSA to require propeller guards on motorboats.

So even though the Sprietsma suit could be considered under state common law ("common law" is "judge-made law," a series of precedents), it appeared to be prohibited under federal law.

And under the supremacy clause of the Constitution, federal laws trump state laws whenever they coincide.

The Sprietsma estate asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case. The justices heard argument Oct. 15 and Tuesday reversed the state courts.

Writing for a unanimous high court, Justice John Paul Stevens said Brunswick relies "upon one of the FBSA's main goals: fostering uniformity in manufacturing regulations."

The federal statute does have a pre-emption clause, but it was plainly meant to apply to the pre-emption of local manufacturing standards, Stevens said.

"Absent a contrary decision by the Coast Guard, the concern with uniformity does not justify the displacement of state common-law remedies that compensate accident victims and their families," Stevens said, "and that serve the (FBSA's) more prominent objective, emphasized by its title, of promoting boating safety."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows sends the case back down to the Illinois courts for a rehearing and a new ruling based on the unanimous high court opinion.


It will also allow the Sprietsma suit to proceed.


(No. 01-706, Sprietsma vs. Mercury Marine.)

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