November 21, 2011
SPEEDBOAT PROPELLER DID EXACTLY WHAT IT WAS SUPPOSE TO DO – PROPEL THE BOAT
RENO, Nevada — Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A. (QPWB) trial attorney James J. McNally, a partner with the Miami office and an engineer, successfully defended a large recreational boating and engine manufacturer in a speedboat accident involving a 32-year-old plaintiff and mother of two who came into contact with the speedboat’s spinning propeller after entering the water when the speedboat accidentally backed up. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered a right above-the-knee amputation. Throughout the litigation, plaintiff claimed $15 million in damages.
This boating accident that occurred at Pyramid Lake, Nevada, inside the Paiute Reservation, because the plaintiff, an experienced boater, contrary to the instructions given to her by the boat’s owner, got out of her seat on the speedboat, climbed over the boat’s transom and then climbed onto the boat’s swim deck, all occurring with the speedboat still moving, and then jumped into the water to retrieve a toy belonging to her very upset and crying young son. As a result of the plaintiff’s action, her leg came in contact with the boat’s propeller.
Plaintiff argued that, if the speedboat’s propeller only had a propeller guard, plaintiff’s severe injuries would not have happened or would have been lessened. Plaintiff further argued that it was not rocket science to design a propeller guard that was practicable and feasible and that several after-market propeller guards were available. Plaintiff argued that the defendant, as one of the predominant manufacturers of speedboat engines as well as propellers, was in a market position to convince all boat manufacturers that propeller guards should be part of their products’ standard features.
In support of her case under Nevada law, Plaintiff employed a series of claimed engineering “experts”, finally settling on two engineers, one from Canada and one from the U.S., with the Canadian engineer designing a hydraulic, steel cage-type, retractable propeller guard. The guard’s initial cost was $15,000 and once the defense experts tested this device on an exemplar speedboat they discovered it represented a significant malfunction hazard, both on land and in water, as well as created serious control problems for a speedboat on plane. Plaintiff promptly changed her design and came up with a new version of a retractable propeller guard. This one also cost $15,000 for the first prototype.
The defense maintained that propeller guards were markedly unsafe when used on speedboats, which would be operating at speed, on a plane. Through a detailed testing program conducted by naval architects utilizing the two different propeller guards that plaintiff asserted should have been surrounding the propeller, as well as using an identical exemplar speedboat, the defense demonstrated that propeller guards will cause significant handling problems, including loss of control and possible ejectment, when used on speedboats. When the “guard” retracted, the defense demonstrated that it would still come in contact with the water in normal operation, in the times it did not fail altogether in testing.
The defense utilized experts who were all highly experienced in hydrodynamics and marine engineering issues, who conducted well documented testing, and who gave testimony that countered the plaintiff’s argument – that a propeller guard would have made a positive difference in plaintiff’s accident. At trial, they utilized video demonstrations of on-water testing using an identical speedboat, with significant on-board instrumentation, as well as land-based GPS communicating with the onboard GPS. The videos were matched up to graphs setting forth the test results obtained from the instrumentation.
The defense also offered a biomechanical engineer who testified and demonstrated through the use of testing data and videos, that at a speed of only five miles per hour, contact between the metal propeller guard surrounding the propeller and a swimmer could cause a serious and possibly fatal depressed skull fracture. Moreover, the defense demonstrated that this device, and others like it based upon the same concept, presented a swimmer with a serious risk of underwater entrapment in the guard.
Finally, the defense presented video testing that revealed that if the idling speedboat engine were suddenly thrust into reverse at full throttle, a suction force by the spinning propeller and the surrounding guard would be created which could pull a swimmer between the guard’s prongs and entrap that way.
Lastly, the defense presented evidence from studies funded by the U.S. Coast Guard that showed that the use of propeller guards in any kind of configuration could create hazardous conditions and would create serious risk of injury, including the possibility of loss of control of the vessel.
After the three and a half week trial, the jury deliberated for less than four hours and returned a verdict in favor of the defense, finding that the marine speedboat, along with its engine, was reasonably safe without a provision for propeller guards and not defective.