Maritime Law for Boating Accidents -  Negligence or Product Liability
Legal Theories Applied in Admiralty Jurisdiction for Recreational Vessels - Contributory Negligence - Foreseeability
A boating accident is a bad experience in anyone’s book. Now imagine the boat you fell off
is going around you in smaller and smaller circles, churning water it inches ever closer. A
pleasure boater in New Jersey experienced such a nightmare while out on a 12’
outboard. In attempting to get back aboard, he tried to grab the moving boat and was
struck by the spinning propeller. He was injured when the spinning propeller cut him in
the neck and face.

The matter wound up in federal court when the boater filed claims for his injuries. This
opened the door to the interpretation of legal theories involving product liability law. While
many boating accidents are litigated under the theory of negligence, the issue in this case
became one of a determination of whether a product was defective. Under product
liability law, a claimant generally alleges a product, here the outboard engine, was
defective in some manner. This means arguing the engine was defectively manufactured,
defectively designed, or that it came with inadequate warnings as to its use.

The legal proceedings opened the door to discussions about a kill switch lanyard. A kill
switch is something we commonly see in small outboards and personal watercraft. The
idea is to stop, or “kill,” the engine in the event someone goes into the drink. This is
accomplished by a lanyard that gets yanked off the engine controls when the operator is
jettisoned overboard.

The operating manual for the 15 horsepower outboard involved in this accident did
address the importance of a kill switch lanyard. The claimant and his father had not read
the manual. However, the claimant’s case argued that the engine had not come with a
lanyard, and that the manufacturer had not provided adequate warnings. In response, the
outboard manufacturer argued the claimant contributed to his injuries by choosing to
operate the small boat at high speed in choppy water, as well as attempting to climb back
aboard while it was moving.

Now the court had to decide whether it was foreseeable for a boat operator not to read
their owner’s manual. Ultimately, the court did decide in the plaintiff’s favor on that issue
of foreseeability.
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Read the full decision on this boating accident case, McGarrigle v. Mercury Marine
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