CHICO, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--A new boat design, sold as the biggest on the market, recently was ruled defective—and at fault—by a jury in a stunning rejection of the manufacturer’s defense, awarding more than $30 million to a 27 year old catastrophically injured young woman.
Although it was billed as a “the most spacious 24 footer on the inboard market,” it was precisely that quality that led to disaster. The jury only deliberated for two and a half days before calling the design of the MasterCraft X-45 defective. The bow was swamped while the boat was traveling less than 5 MPH on the way back to pick up a fallen wakeboarder during the 2006 accident at Lake Oroville, located in Northern California. During the course of the slow speed return trip— the boat submerged unexpectedly—two women were swept out of the boat and into the spinning propeller.
When the boat ran over her, the propellers struck Niki Bell three times in the head—slicing into her skull and cutting through her brain and the front of her face. The 27-year old lost her left eye and part of her frontal lobe. Because of her injuries, Bell requires assistance with acts of daily living for the rest of her life. Bell was awarded $30.9 million for her injuries.
The other passenger, Bethany Wallenburgh, was able to grab the windshield before being washed out of the boat, as a result she went into the water feet first. She was awarded $530,688 for injuries caused when her leg, elbow and lower back were struck by the propeller.
“The boat design is a Frankenstein, a combination of two different boat models,” said Bell’s attorney, Roger A. Dreyer, senior partner at Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood, a personal injury law firm in Sacramento. “It’s remarkable that no one was killed or that more people were injured.”
During the 49-day trial, a former MasterCraft employee involved in the creation of this boat testified that it was created by combining the hull from one boat which was shortened, and the top of another. He also said that MasterCraft never tested this vessel to determine its advertised capacity of 18 people. “They took two existing boats—the hull of the X-80 and the deck of the X-Star—and combined them, but never engineered it and evaluated whether it would perform safely or as advertised,” said Dreyer.
During the wakeboarding run, a few passengers moved to the largest bow on the market to try and get the boat to perform as MasterCraft advertised it, ‘Trademark MasterCraft performance while comfortably seating 18’. The Vonore, Tennessee-based company, provided no information or warnings about the placement of people in the boat including the oversize bow. Using the advertising slogan “Held to a Higher Standard,” the luxury boat went on the market in 2005 and is still being sold nationwide.
Tragically for Bell, the 24-foot-long boat features a hole in the anchor locker that allows water to come into the boat and go into the hull, under the deck where the users of the boat would be unaware they are taking on water. The problem is compounded by a reverse sheer, the bow curves toward the water, putting this hole closer to the water and increasing the chance of the boat taking on water. “They made the bow very large, and when it dips, the water pours in,” said Dreyer.
Dreyer argued that the design is not safe based on the combination of factors: a miscalculated capacity label indicating 18 people or 2,928 pounds, which the Defendant’s expert admitted to under cross examination was in error; an oversized bow; a hole in the anchor locker; the reverse sheer; and, the lack of adequate handrails in the bow. He was also critical of MasterCraft for not testing the boat and supplying no documents about the design or testing of the X-45.
The jury, in an 11-1 ruling, found that the boat’s design defects outweighed the benefits. In civil cases, nine members of a 12-person jury must agree on the verdict.
Both Bell and Mercer had been students at California State University, Chico, when the accident occurred. Because of her extensive injuries—including permanent brain damage—Bell’s family was particularly thankful for the verdict.
“The case is an example of the civil justice system at work,” said Dreyer. “It has been communicated to manufacturers that the basic steps to do the right thing, address safety, and avoid tragic accidents must be taken.”
Robert Bale, Bethany Wallenburgh’s attorney, added, “You can’t just put an untested product on the market and use Americans as guinea pigs. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, they were the test subjects.”
The biggest concern to the plaintiffs and their attorneys is the fact that there are almost a 1,000 X-45s out on the waters of American today and their operators are unaware of this defect which can result in horrific injuries. They hope that the verdict will cause MasterCraft to do the right thing and immediately contact those owners and advise them of this defective condition.
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