Traumatic Brain Injury Trial In Chico Yields $30 Million Verdict

Women injured in boat accident awarded $30 Million

Negligent Boaters Likely Cause of TBI Accident But Jury Blames Boat Manufacturer

On June 7, 2011 a  jury in Butte County California awarded $31 million to two women who were swept off a boat and injured by its propeller. The women were riding in a MasterCraft X-45 wakeboarding craft.

There were 12 passengers sitting on the bow (that is the front of the boat) when it was suddenly submerged as the driver, Jerry Montz, went to retrieve a fallen wakeboarder. The force of water carried the women off the boat, and the propeller struck one on the head causing a traumatic brain injury; she lost an eye and has permanent brain damage. The other lady was cut on the elbow and lower back.

The women’s lawyer alleged the boat was defectively designed. They also sued Montz for negligent operation. The jury found MasterCraft 80 percent at fault and Montz 20 percent at fault. Of the award, $30.9 million went to the TBI victim and $530,688 to the other plaintiff.

 This is the kind of case that makes people hate lawyers. (People never seem to remember that a jury of non-lawyers rendered the verdict)    I am a lawyer and I think the result stinks, too.  First, a disclaimer I don’t know all the facts about the case , the name of which is Bell v. MasterCraft Boat Co.

I speculate that the plaintiffs’ argument went something like this—Mastercraft defectively designed the boat because its design allowed twelve people to sit in the bow.  If only Mastercraft had designed the boat to prevent more than “X” amount of people to sit in the bow this tragic accident wouldn’t have happened.  Also, Mastercraft did not do enough product testing prior to marketing the boat.

 The plaintiffs’ lawyer probably argued that the hull design that may have made it easier to swamp. I am confident that the lawyer argued MasterCraft had not performed adequate testing or design of the craft prior to marketing the boat. That’s crap.  And results like this cost all consumers, not just consumers of watercraft, money. 

In cases of catastrophic injury like this one many juries strain to find liability against the wealthiest defendant. 

They learn in the trial the unbelievable expenses that are associated with caring for a young adult who has suffered a serious traumatic brain injury.  She will need around the clock care, therapy, and perhaps further medical procedures. 

Mr. Montz might have been well off enough to own a ski boat and may have had insurance, but caring for a traumatic brain injury in her twenties or teens victim for the term of her natural life—60 to 70 more years—will cost millions.

 The problem is that based on the facts above defective design seems like the least likely cause of this tragedy.  There were too many people on the front of the boat and the driver likely turned too sharply causing the bow to dip.  Who’s fault is it that there were twelve people on the bow?  Mastercraft? I don’t see it.

Years ago an American car maker learned of a potential fire problem with the fuel tanks of a new vehicle during pre-marketing testing.   The company marketed it anyway and when people were immolated in rear end accident, the jury and then the public was rightfully enraged.  Ever since that has been a common argument for the plaintiff’s lawyers to make.

I represent plaintiffs.  I have only disdain for insurance companies who are the usual adversaries auto accident, premises liability and medical malpractice cases.  My personal experience with insurance companies and my experience as a lawyer has been uniformly poor.  Insurance companies do their best to weasel out of their obligations and to pay as little as possible on all claims.

Manufacturers make a profit based on sales.  Subtract the costs of design, testing, marketing, etc. from the income and there you have it.  The boat at issue is relatively large apparently, it seats 18 persons. Mastercraft likely did not breach its obligations to consumers and this case was wrongly decided.

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