Product Liability -- Boats and Boat Builders

Most people are familiar with the term "product liability" but when it comes right down to it, most people do not actually know what it means. It can be an issue of vital importance any time that there is a personal injury on the water, or involving a boat. Imagine the following:

Jim Fisherman ordered a new lobster boat from Builder, Inc. It was delivered unfinished to Boatyard, LLC, where decks and bulkheads were installed, and customization was performed. Mr. Fisherman's specifications called for an additional canopy over the cockpit on which to stack his traps and gear. That winter, with a big storm in the forecast, Jim went out to pull his traps. When the weather turned bad, the boat went down with a full load on the canopy. Jim lived a couple of hours in the water, but eventually succumbed to the cold. Investigators found that the causes of the sinking included instability due to the traps and the canopy and a failed bulkhead.

Who is responsible? Jim probably bears some responsibility, since he overloaded the boat and put himself in a situation where he was exposed to heavy weather. If Mrs. Fisherman files suit over his death, however, it is very likely that the case would name as defendants everyone that had a hand in the manufacture and sale of the boat, including Builder, Inc. and Boatyard, LLC.

Mrs. Fisherman's case would likely be based on two primary theories: negligence in the design and installation of the canopy and bulkhead, and products liability. In the negligence case, one defense to the claim would be that Jim's own negligence was the primary cause -- he should not have overloaded his boat in heavy weather. Ultimately, that is a question that would have to be resolved by a jury. This defense, however, would not be available on the products liability claim.

In products liability, any party in the manufacturing chain can be sued if a product is delivered to a consumer with an unreasonably dangerous defect. A products liability claim is structured as follows:

  1. One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user, if
    • (a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and
    • (b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

  2. The rule applies although the seller exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of the product.

A product may be defective in three ways: (a) in manufacture; (b) in design; or (c) by failing to have adequate warnings or instruction--the absence of which are deemed to leave the product defective. In Mrs. Fisherman's case, the product may have been defective in manufacture (in the installation of the canopy and bulkhead); in design (same); or in failure to warn (perhaps Mr. Fisherman should have been warned that the addition of the canopy would make the boat unstable).

If Mrs. Fisherman proves that the boat was defective and unreasonably dangerous, she will succeed in the suit. Builder, Inc. and Boatyard, LLC (or their insurance companies) would be equally responsible to Mrs. Fisherman.

If you or someone you know is injured on a boat, consider whether some of the fault for the injury is attributable to the boat itself, as a dangerous product. If you are in the business of building or commissioning boats -- be aware that you have real legal responsibilities to the end users of those boats, even if they are not your immediate customers. Particular care should be taken if you are aware of something about the boats that could cause injury.