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Justices OK Boating Accident Damages

Supreme Court: The ruling, limited to recreational mishaps, lets victims sue manufacturers. Experts say it expands reach of maritime law.

January 10, 1996|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Victims of recreational boating accidents and their survivors won a significant victory Tuesday in the Supreme Court.

In a 9-0 ruling, the court said these victims can win full damages for their losses from boat manufacturers, rather than the limited damages allowed in commercial shipping accidents.

The decision could prove a costly setback for the makers of Jet Skis, which have been involved in a number of accidents. In 1994, 56 persons, mostly teenagers, died in accidents involving Jet Skis.

The ruling came in the case of Natalie Calhoun, a 12-year-old Pennsylvania girl who died in a Jet Ski accident at a family resort in Puerto Rico.

Apparently unfamiliar with the controls, Natalie squeezed the handle of a rented machine, which increased its speed, slamming her into an anchored yacht.

Her parents sued the Yamaha Motor Corp., maker of the Jet Ski, contending that it was dangerous and defective.

The high court ruling does not settle the issue of whether the manufacturer must pay damages but raises the stakes greatly.

Yamaha, joined by much of the maritime industry, contended that it could be sued only for the girl's funeral expenses but not for hundreds of thousands dollars in emotional losses and for punitive damages.

Legal experts said that the ruling in the case (Yamaha Corp. vs. Calhoun, 94-1387) applies to all recreational boating.

In 1993, the Coast Guard counted 6,335 recreational boating accidents, which resulted in 800 deaths and 3,559 injuries.

Tuesday's decision appears to reverse a 25-year trend in the high court to limit damages for accidents on the waterways. In numerous decisions, the court has expanded the reach of maritime law to cover nearly any incident on water. Last year, for example, the court said that the flooding of tunnels under downtown Chicago was a maritime accident because it began with a dredging barge floating on the Chicago River, a navigable waterway.

These rulings had the effect of protecting ship owners, whose liability is limited under federal maritime laws dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The laws were adopted because shipping was regarded as a vital industry, yet one that involved such risks to life and property that the prospect of unlimited financial exposure would scare away investors.

Generally, the families of seafarers and longshoremen who are killed can only recover money that would represent their lost wages. Unlike an accident victim on land, they cannot sue in state court to win more money for pain and suffering, a loss of companionship or punitive damages.

"This turns maritime law on its head. For the first time, this says [that] the survivors of a recreational boating accident can recover more than the families of those who make their living on the sea," said Los Angeles attorney George J. Koelzer, who filed a brief on behalf of the National Marine Manufacturers Assn., a group of 1,500 companies that sought a uniform limit on damages.

But a lawyer who represented the Calhoun family praised the decision because it put boat manufacturers on notice that they must pay broad damages for accidents.

"This is an extremely significant decision," said attorney William J. Taylor of Philadelphia.

The case now goes back to Philadelphia where a federal court jury will decide whether Yamaha is liable for the girl's death, and if so, to set a damage award.

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