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State statutes override admiralty rule in personal watercraft deaths.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that state wrongful death remedies apply to cases involving personal watercraft, like Jet Skis and similar products, operated in territorial waters. (Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 116 S. Ct. 619 (1996).) The unanimous decision allows plaintiffs to seek compensation for damages not allowed under under admiralty law.

Twelve-year-old Natalie Calhoun was killed when her rented Yamaha Wave Jammer slammed into an anchored boat near a resort hotel in Puerto Rico. The girl's parents sued Yamaha in federal court, alleging defective design, but based the lawsuit on Pennsylvania state law. This allowed them to seek damages for lost future earnings, loss of society, loss of support and services, funeral expenses, and punitive damages.

Yamaha contended that because the death occurred in navigable waters, maritime wrongful death remedies established in 1970 by Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc. (398 U.S. 375) should apply. Under admiralty rules the Calhouns could recover damages only for Natalie's funeral expenses.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the Supreme Court's opinion. "This Court rejects Yamaha's argument that Moragne's wrongful death action [creates] a uniform federal maritime remedy for all deaths occurring in state territorial waters," she wrote. She pointed out that state remedies have been applied traditionally in maritime wrongful death accident cases where the decedent was not a seaman, longshore worker, or person otherwise engaged in a maritime trade.

Ginsburg cited the Death on the High Seas Act (46 U.S.C. [sections]767), which specifically does not displace state law in territorial waters, and the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. [sections]688), which applies only to seamen. "Taking into account what Congress sought to achieve," she said, "we preserve the application of state statutes to deaths within territorial waters."

Attorney Buddy Rake of Phoenix, who chairs an ATLA litigation group concerned with personal watercraft, said any other decision would have been unfair. "These products should not even be classified as boats," he said. "The U.S. Coast Guard had to grant them 10 exemptions [from normal vessel specifications]. If something has to be given 10 exemptions to meet the definition of a boat, maybe it's not a boat."

Rake points out that the classification is crucial for manufacturers, the same companies that have been involved in ATV (all-terrain vehicle) litigation. "That controversy ended with the Consumer Product Safety Commission saying there will be no more three-wheeled ATVs. Classifying personal watercraft as boats puts them in a category where the CPSC has no jurisdiction."

Personal watercraft are a cross between a motorboat and a motorcycle. Some models weigh up to 600 pounds and reach speeds of 70 miles an hour. Since sit-down craft were introduced a few years ago, sales have increased 35 percent to 40 percent a year and account for nearly one-third of the motorized watercraft market. (Amy Argetsinger, Deaths Rise as More People Ride the Waves, Wash. Post, Aug. 27, 1995, at A1.)

Deaths and injuries related to personal watercraft crashes have also been increasing. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 56 people died during 1994 in accidents involving personal watercraft and that the vehicles are involved in 34 percent of all reported boating accidents.

Personal watercraft design has frequently been criticized. The vehicles are highly maneuverable and almost impossible to capsize, but operators have difficulty handling them in emergencies.

"The biggest single problem," said Rake, "is that, in order to avoid a dangerous situation, you have to speed up instead of slow down. Everything else in a person's experience - bicycles, motorcycles, cars - tells him that to avoid a collision you brake or let up on the throttle. If you do that on a personal watercraft, you just keep on going. In some cases, you have to accelerate to have the power to get out of the way."

Another problem is visibility. "It's much harder to see things on a lake than on a highway," said Rake. "There are no lanes, no traffic signals." Like motorists who fail to see bicycles and motorcycles because they are looking for other cars, boat operators don't see personal watercraft because they are looking for other boats.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dilworth, Donald C.
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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