Boat Accident Trials: Harsh Forum Comments on Verdicts

Boni Buehler as a stewardess

Boni Buehler, high profile boat propeller accident trial
resulting from a 1953 boat accident

Some thoughts for those who tend to offer snap judgements about what happened in boating accidents along with what should have happened in jury trials.

When we read about boating cases/trials in online boating forums, we naturally want to weigh in on what we think happened in the accident. In addition, we also want to weigh in on the findings of the court / Jury.

Themes typically brought up in an online boating forum discussion of a Boat Accident case / trial often include:

  • The McDonalds coffee case.
  • Remington model 700 rifle trigger cases & the Remington Sandy Hook case.
  • My car tires do not have guards on them.
  • Lawyers are blood suckers looking for deep pockets.
  • The boat operator is a drunken, high on drugs, irresponsible, idiot.
  • The boat operator is 100 percent at fault.
  • I can’t understand how the Jury could assign that high of a percentage of fault to the boat builder.
  • The boat operator should have (insert commenter’s proposed actions).
  • It is sad the person is deceased, but they should have (insert commenter’s proposed actions).
  • The jury was packed with bleeding heart city folks that know nothing about boating.
  • Nobody takes responsibility for their actions anymore.
  • You can sue anybody for anything.
  • Jury was full of morons.
  • We already have too many warning labels, and now they want more
  • Are they going to put a warning on (fill in the blank with something ridiculous) now?
  • This case is an example of why boats and everything else have become so expensive.
  • This award will be struck down on appeal.

The common theme is many comments are harsh negative comments about the boat operator, the injured or deceased person, the lawyers, and the jury.

An Example and a Suggestion

For example, MasterCraft’s Bell vs. Mastercraft verdict back in 2012 includes some harsh negative comments from back then. Subsequently, fast forward to the Batchelder vs Malibu verdict in 2021 concerning a generally similar accident. Some of the same harsh comments are going around again. On a positive note, a look across Team Talk as well as several online boating forums does show several boaters recognizing they have not seen all the evidence.

While some harsh negative comments may be true in a particular case, it is unlikely a quick judgement is accurate about a legal case. These cases have been in preparation for years, created terabytes of data, then been distilled and argued before a jury for a week or more.

Obviously, everybody is entitled to an opinion and the right to voice it.

We merely suggest some comments could be a little more open minded (a little softer) recognizing there is a tremendous amount of evidence the person commenting has likely not seen.

We encourage those commenting in boating forums about boat accident trials to consider:

First, they were not present at the accident

Second, they have most likely not seen the evidence surrounding the boat accident, the boat, rental boat & marina, history of the problem, medical aspects of the case, emotional aspects of the case, the legal discovery, legal aspects of the case, the jury, expert witnesses, bad actors, attitudes projected in the courtroom, and much more. It is definitely challenging to instantly, clearly discern what should have happened without reviewing the evidence..

Third, there may be others with differing opinions.

Fourth and finally, some forum members might enjoy a discussion more than a shouting match.

Pieces of Evidence Are Like Individual Pieces to a 1,000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle

jigsaw puzzle piecesBelow are a series of lists identifying some of the elements considered in a boat accident legal case.

In a given case some may not pertain to or be of significant consequence to that particular case.

It is like there are a thousand upside down jigsaw puzzle pieces and you do not know what is on any of them till you turn them over one at a time. Specific bits of information on some pieces will directly or indirectly have significant impact on the outcome of the case one way or the other. You just don’t know which ones are important til you gather them all (like during the legal discovery period), turn them over (study discovery documents and materials), examine them (sometimes during legal depositions), and begin to assemble the puzzle.

Boat Accident Evidence to be Considered

  1. All camera and cell phone photos & videos taken by those on board, bystanders, Good Samaritans, rescue workers, and others.
  2. Accident reports, witness statements, and photos & videos by those who responded to the accident.
  3. Activity of the vessel at the time of the accident (cruising, beaching, reversing, towing a skier, slowing, changing direction, turning, circling, etc).
  4. Speed and direction of vessel at time of the accident.
  5. Thousands of pages of legal depositions of those on board, bystanders, Good Samaritans, First Responders, and County Coroners. Along with any video depositions.
  6. Exact location of the accident, especially the GPS coordinates. Note the actual format of GPS coordinates on boat accident reports is often different from the format reported on the document.
  7. Inspecting the accident site while considering any changes in water levels.
  8. The “black box” / event data recorder information off the marine drive.
  9. Any GPS data off the boat fish finders, GPS systems, Fishing Waypoints, Sports Watches, Cell Phones, etc.
  10. Natural conditions at time of accident (waves, wind, daylight, glare, air temperature, water temperature, weather).
  11. Conditions on boat at time of accident (noise, loud music, alcohol).
  12. Boater Fatigue – wind, waves, the sun, engine noise, vibration, along with warmer temperatures greatly increase reaction times after a few hours on the water.
  13. The family relationships between those onboard, the injured party, the boat operator, and others nearby.
  14. How long did it take law enforcement and first responders to respond?
  15. How long was it till serious injured parties were able to make it to major trauma center?
  16. Were bodies promptly recovered or did the search last multiple days while the family camped nearby?
  17. Were any amputated body parts quickly found that were able to be reattached?
  18. Was the person entrapped on the boat propeller? For how long?

Boat Evidence to be Considered

  1. The actual boat involved in the accident.
  2. The boat inspection (experts examining the boat and/or marine drive).
  3. Inspection of the propeller.
  4. Did the boat meet all the relevant standards when it was built?
  5. On water testing of the boat and/or marine drive.
  6. Any modifications to the boat and/or marine drive.
  7. Service history of the boat and/or marine drive
  8. Hull ID number of the boat along with the Serial Number of the marine drive.
  9. When the boat and/or marine drive were manufactured.
  10. The Capacity plate on the boat (because it indicates how many people and/or pounds can be on the boat)
  11. Was the boat properly loaded at time of the accident?
  12. The boat propeller manufacturer, part number, material, diameter, and pitch.
  13. Ownership history of the boat.
  14. The build sheet for this particular marine drive.
  15. Review of the relevant warnings and instructions on the boat and/or marine drive.
  16. Review of the relevant warnings and instructions in the boat and/or marine drive operators manuals.
  17. Are warning placed where they can be read, understood, and acted upon before the person is at risk?

Rental Boat & Marina Evidence to be Considered

  1. Condition of rental boats.
  2. Safety training provided.
  3. Operating instructions provided.
  4. Did the marina sell alcohol to those renting this boat for taking aboard?
  5. Did all boat operators on this vessel meet local requirements to operate a boat?
  6. Does the marina provide operating instructions along with safety instruction to everyone who will be operating the boat?
  7. Did any any safety training videos provided correctly cover the safety procedures needed? Also, did renters understand them when they rented the boat? Could renters recall videos content when they needed it during the rental?
  8. Were mandatory videos provided in an environment conducive to learning / training?
  9. Did those who actually operated the boat watch mandatory training videos?
  10. How did the marina respond at the time of the accident?
  11. What did the marina do after any initial response to the accident?
  12. Are the boats sufficiently safe for the environment, weather, and lake conditions the marina knows they will be operated in?
  13. Is the training provided sufficient for the environment the marina knows they will be operated in? (for example rental houseboats may be used in a party atmosphere and rafted together)

History of the Problem / Safety Hazards to be Considered

  1. When did the boat builder or drive manufacturer become aware of the problem?
  2. What did the boat builder or drive manufacturer do about the problem once they became aware of it?
  3. Has the company taken any actions since the accident to address the cause of the accident?
  4. When could the boat builder or drive manufacture became aware of the problem?
  5. The history of similar accidents from the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Accident Report Database (BARD), warranty claims, customer complaints, news reports, online forums especially those for similar boats built by them and their direct competitors, previous lawsuits against them or their direct competitors, from those sponsored by the manufacturer such as competitive bass anglers.
  6. Did the boat builder and/or drive manufacturer regularly monitor BARD, their own dealers, online forums, along with other sources for accidents involving their products and/or competitive products.
  7. Did the boat builder maintain a list of serious accidents involving their boats.
  8. History of the company’s response to other hazards.
  9. Does the boat and/or marine drive company Post Sale Monitor the safety of their products?
  10. Have competitors addressed the hazard / problem? When did competitors address the hazard / problem?

Medical Evidence to be Considered

  1. The actual life flight, medical, burial, and lifetime care costs involved in this case.
  2. Cost of prosthetics, especially for growing children frequently needing resized.
  3. Propeller accident victims may require many more surgeries over the course of their lives.
  4. Any previous medical conditions of those injured or deceased.
  5. The Estimate Lifetime in years of those deceased (years cut off their life).
  6. Seen photo of the injury and autopsy.
  7. How painful was the injury at the time, and afterwards?
  8. Did the person actually die from drowning or from trauma?
  9. Did those killed die instantly or suffer and die?
  10. Were amputations involved?
  11. Length of time initially spent in the hospital and rehabilitation.
  12. Current lost wages and impact of accident on future career earnings.

Emotional Aspects of the Case for Consideration

  1. Consider how gruesome the accident was.
  2. Were family members onboard or nearby witness the accident or its aftermath?
  3. Was a child or young person permanently injured or killed?
  4. Impact of the accident and injuries on their family life along with their quality of life.
  5. “Empty Chair”. Parents not longer see their children at the table on holidays and special occasions, are unable to see them graduate, married, and have children.

The Legal Discovery Phase Generates Tremendous Amounts of Information

  1. The intensity of the discovery efforts on both sides of the case (finding all the relevant information, facts, documents, people, videos, etc.).
  2. Social Media of those involved in the accident, the boat builder and/or the marine drive manufacturer both before and after the accident.
  3. Texts messages to and from the injured party during and after the accident.
  4. 911, Coast Guard, or National Park Service dispatch records. In addition, audio tapes may be available.
  5. Depositions of dozens of people including those on the boat, those nearby, law enforcement, first responders. Also depositions of coroners, company engineers, corporate executives, and more.
  6. Any flesh or clothing later found entrapped on the propeller or other boat running gear.

Legal Aspects of the Case for Consideration

  1. The actual claims the injured party or their survivors filed against the defendant(s).
  2. Were claims made concerning a defect (a part did not meet requirements established by the manufacturer), a design defect (design was not safe), and / or lack of proper warnings?
  3. The actual laws in the state the case is tried in, or the actual Federal Laws if in U.S. District Court or Admiralty Law.
  4. Both sides may perform testing of the boat, materials, propeller, and other items.
  5. Investigation into when did the firm know about this problem / safety hazard. When did they do something about it? What did they do? Also, what did they do about the boats in the field?
  6. All the legal briefs, motions, in addition to the Judges orders in the case.
  7. Impact of the Jones Act on the case. The Jones Act is an 1800s American shipping law the boating industry sometimes uses as a defense in cases on navigable waters (waters where shipping occurs).
  8. Negotiating back and forth between the two legal teams and the Judge about what the jury will actually be allowed to see and hear and what they will NOT be allowed to see and hear.
  9. Skill and attentiveness of the lawyers on both sides.
  10. Sometimes lawyers are less prepared, less timely with their filings, and obviously frustrate the Judge.
  11. Boating industry sometimes rises up as a whole to defeat a specific case making it more challenging for a small firm to prevail.
  12. Studied similar cases along with their jury verdicts.
  13. Discussions behind establishing punitive damages in this case.

The Jury

  1. The Jury selection process.
  2. What the judge’s instructions were to the jury?
  3. Exactly what the jury was tasked with deciding?
  4. Review a copy of the actual jury verdict form.
  5. The Jury’s actual deliberations.
  6. Any questions the Jury may have asked the Judge.
  7. Boating forum members are typically male, juries tend to have women and at least some non boaters on them.
  8. Juries can spend a few weeks in court for boat accident cases and see dozens of witnesses. Also they are mulling the case around in their minds the rest of the day.

Expert Witness Generate a Lot of Materials

  1. Review all experts depositions, expert reports, expert testimony along with exhibits (displays).
  2. Experts may provide thousands of photos for review.
  3. Reconstructions of the boat accident
  4. Experts may provide CAD drawings, 3D renderings, simulations, stress analysis, metallurgical test results, experimental results, analysis of the “black box” / event data recorder on many modern marine engines, identification of similar accidents, accident reconstructions / simulations, and much more.
  5. Estimated future medical costs
  6. Estimated lost wages
  7. Portraying future capabilities of those injured.
  8. Estimated lifetime Care costs
  9. The ability of individual expert witnesses to “teach” the jury of their findings.

Bad Actors May Have Been Identified

  1. Either side may commit improper actions after the accident.
  2. Either side may take action to cover up / hide something that later came to light.
  3. Does the boat builder and/or drive manufacture maintain a library of major safety materials, flyers, instructions, bulletins, and boating safety circulars issued by the U.S. Coast Guard?

Attitudes Projected in the Courtroom Can Influence the Jury

  1. Attitudes and demeanors of witnesses, experts, corporate executives, and legal teams can influence the jury.
  2. Individual or teams exhibiting confidence in their findings and testimony are much more believable than those hesitating and crouching the answers to every question.

In Summary

Back to the jigsaw puzzle analogy, some commenting on accidents and trials think they see the full 1,000 piece puzzle when they only have a few pieces in their hand.

It is impossible to make an informed snap judgement as to what the jury should have done based on a few posts in an online boating forum.

That is why legal cases are argued in front a jury of our peers and not by posting them online for quick judgement decisions from those whoever happened to be online that day.

Yes, many in online boating forums have an incredible wealth of boating experience and knowledge. They can:

  • Explain things that might sound confusing in media coverage of accidents or legal cases
  • Add significant, meaningful content to the discussion of an accident or legal case
  • Ask questions someone might be able to answer
  • Tell us of their own similar experiences or
  • Even speculate a little.

We are just suggesting we all might consider not being so sure our shoot from the hip judgement is correct given all the evidence we have not seen.

I am not stupid. Obviously I know this post will take some flack from the quick to judge crowd.

Furthermore I suggest that anybody that “shoots the messenger” they might want to consider the message that sends about themselves.

Have a great day, and thanks for listening.

As my wife says, let’s all try to be a little kinder to one another!

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