Bell vs. MasterCraft Boat Company Trial: Propeller Accident Victims Awarded $30 Million

Back on July 9, 2006, Bethany Mercer (then Bethany Wallenburg) and Niki Bell (now age 27) were on a MasterCraft X-45 on California’s Lake Oroville. They were both ejected from the boat and hit by its propeller. Niki Bell received several skull fractures resulting brain damage, and lost her left eye. Bethany Mercer received injuries to her arm, leg and back. Both women been sitting in the front left of the 24 foot wake board boat. The boat started to take on water after it was completing a turn to pickup a fallen wake boarder with something close to 20 people onboard, and the two women were washed overboard, perhaps in part resulting from up to 12 people being in the bow.

The case official reference:

Robert Bell vs MasterCraft Boat Company
Case # 140630 Superior Court of California, County of Butte.

Niki Bell’s injuries were life altering and her resulting life time medicial and life care cost estimates were very large. Bells’ medical bills already exceed $2 million.

The trial / case focused on the large number of people on board, the capacity of the boat, and any testing MasterCraft had done of the boat at full capacity before placing it in production. Also, some ladder holes may have let water into the boat’s shell, and the lack of handholds or more extensive use of rails in the bow were investigated. The case DID NOT focus on the safety of an exposed propeller, however the case would have never existed if the women had not been struck by the propeller.

The defense claimed there were 19 people on board at the time of the accident. Their boat was rated for 18 people, which is a lot of people for a 24 foot boat. At one point the defense accused the plaintiffs of collusion (their lawyers working together as the result of an agreement).

Niki Bell was represented by Dryer Babich Buccola & Wood, while Bethany Mercer was represented by Robert Bale. At the time of the accident, both women were students at California State University Chico.

A witness for the defense apparently stated the capacity label of 18 people or 2,928 pounds was in error. We checked MasterCraft’s website today (24 June 2011), and it still bears those same numbers as the X45’s capacity.

After 46 plus days testimony and arguments from both sides, the jury began deliberations on Friday June 3rd, 2011. The jury rendered its verdict on Tuesday June 7th. The jury assigned 80 percent of the liability to MasterCraft due to the design of their boat (MasterCraft did not produce any documents showing the boat was tested at or near capacity), and 20 percent to the boat operator. $30.9 million was awarded to Bell and $530,688 to Bethany Mercer.

This verdict in conjunction with Brunswick’s loss in the recent Brochtrup appeal, should either get the industry thinking about propeller safety devices OR working on a better defense.

After the trial, MasterCraft was said to have been considering an appeal.

We were a little late in covering this trial due to being in the middle of moving to when the award occurred.


August 20, 2011 Mercury Register reported from Chico California that the Butte County Superior Judge rejected Mastercrafts request for a new trial. Mastercraft had claimed cooperation between the attorney for the plaintiff and the boat operator, and a recent court ruling on medical damages in another case limiting damages awards to the actual amount paid, not the amount billed entitled them to a new trial.

The judge did not agree. She earlier had the plaintiff attorneys and the boat operator swear they were not cooperating. She said the medical damages were just a part of a larger claim, and the damages case they cited appears different from this one. So she, Judge Sandra McLean, will let the verdict stand.

With that much money on the table, we suspect this is not over yet.

August 22, 2011 Soundings Trade Only reports MasterCraft’s President and CEO, John Dorton, said he was disappointed in the Judge’s rejection of MasterCraft’s request for a new trial. He referred to jury’s decision as a “ridiculous verdit”, and said “the appeals process continues.”

September 14, 2011 MasterCraft filed a notice of appeal with the Superior Court of California, County of Butte.

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