Boat manufacturer liable for failing to guard propeller blade

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Recent Cases: Recreational Products & Equipment

June/July 2010, Volume 29, No. 3

Boat manufacturer liable for failing to guard propeller blade 

Brochtrup v. Mercury Marine, U.S. Dist. Ct., W.D. Tex., 1:07-cv-00643, Apr. 6, 2010.

Jacob Brochtrup, 18, and his friends were wakeboarding, a sport similar to waterskiing in which the participant is towed behind a boat while riding a board known as a wakeboard. As Brochtrup jumped into the water to grab a towline, the operator of the boat—a 2003 Sea Ray 176 BR 17 1/2-foot “bow rider” runabout—put it into reverse. The engine’s propeller contacted the top of Brochtrup’s right leg, severing it almost entirely above the knee. He suffered massive blood loss and required surgical amputation of the entire leg, leaving only the pelvic socket. He has been unable to use a mechanical prosthetic device and may be fitted with a computerized prosthesis. His past medical expenses totaled about $161,000, and his future medical expenses and life-care costs are estimated at $2.9 million.

Brochtrup sued Brunswick Corporation and its divisions that manufactured the boat and its engine—a 2003 MerCruiser 135 Alpha sterndrive model—alleging the engine was defectively designed in that it lacked propeller guards to prevent a swimmer’s inadvertent contact with the blades. The plaintiff offered evidence of a safer alternative design—consisting of a guard around the propeller and a hinged shield covering the back—that did not affect the boat’s performance. The plaintiff contended that the defendants knew of the possibility of developing a safer design for decades before the incident here but made no attempt to do so.

Brochtrup did not claim lost earnings.

The jury awarded $3.8 million, finding the boat maker 66 percent liable and Brochtrup and the boat operator, who was not a party, each 17 percent responsible. The net award totals just over $2.5 million. The defendants are entitled to a credit based on a confidential, pre-filed settlement with the insurer for the boat’s owner and operator.

The defense has filed a posttrial motion for remittitur of some of the award pertaining to future medical expenses, arguing that the jury did not reduce them to present value.

The plaintiff’s expert witnesses were William Greenlees, mechanical engineering/recreational boats, and Alex Willingham, life-care planning, both of San Antonio, Tex.; and Brian Benda, biomechanics, Philadelphia, Pa.

The defense experts were Robert K. Taylor, naval architecture/marine engineering, Novi, Mich.; and William Scott, biomechanics, San Antonio, Tex.

Plaintiff’s Counsel

Robert C. Alden, Austin, Tex.

Don L. Davis, Austin, Tex.

Kevin W. Liles, Corpus Christi, Tex.


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