Jury rules against MasterCraft in design lawsuit

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A jury in Butte County, Calif., found Tuesday that MasterCraft was 80 percent to blame for injuries a woman suffered in a wakeboarding accident five years ago on Lake Oroville and awarded her $30 million.

Lawyers for Niki Bell, 27, alleged that the MasterCraft X45 has a design flaw that caused the front end of the boat to partially submerge during a low-speed turn and dump Bell and another woman into the water, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported.

“They made the bow huge — it was a Frankenstein’s monster,” said Roger Dreyer, Bell’s Sacramento lawyer. “They took two existing boats and combined them, but never engineered it. They made it very large so a lot of people could be in it. If it dips, the water pours in and that’s what happened.”

MasterCraft lawyer Thomas Dale Nielsen said the accident was the first for the boat, which is sold nationwide. He said MasterCraft ”will consider its appellate options” in assessing the verdict.

“Obviously, we are very disappointed in the outcome,” Nielsen told the newspaper. “We believe the evidence established that the MasterCraft X45 did not cause this accident and that while MasterCraft has great compassion for both Ms. Bell and [co-plaintiff] Ms. [Bethany] Wallenburg due to their serious injuries, we continue to believe that the accident was caused by an impaired, reckless driver.”

Wallenburg received a $500,000 award in Tuesday’s verdict.

Along with the 80 percent of responsibility the jury assigned to MasterCraft, it also found boat operator Jerry Montz, now 33, liable for 20 percent of the damages suffered by Bell and Wallenburg.

According to evidence at the trial, Montz was drinking at the time of the accident and registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 percent. He was arrested after the July 9, 2006 accident and later pleaded no contest to negligent operation of a watercraft, according to his lawyer.

The two women were washed into the lake as the boat made a 3- to 5-mph turn to retrieve a fallen wakeboarder it was towing, according to evidence at the trial.

As the boat continued its turn, the propeller slashed Wallenburg across the back and it struck Bell in the head, fracturing her skull, slicing through her frontal lobe and ripping out her left eye.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that a design flaw caused the boat to dip into the water — an excessively big bow that allowed too many people to get into the front as well as seepage through a forward anchor slot. The defense said Montz allowed too many people on board — 19 — in a craft rated for 18. Moreover, Nielsen said, Montz allowed 12 passengers to sit in the bow.

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30 comments on “Jury rules against MasterCraft in design lawsuit

  1. Christopher Kourtakis

    This is an unfortunate situation, but from the sounds of it, the owner/driver was a fault.

    If there was in deed a design flaw, then there would be more reported accidents.

    Sounds like the MC defense team did not do their best and investigate. I have been involved with numerous cases like this as an expert witness and if the lawyers did what needed to be done, MC would not be in this situation.

    It is unfortunate that alcohol was involved. Most safe and experienced boaters know not to put their entire crew in the bow of their boat and not to make sharp turns when retrieving a skier that has fallen.

    Please let me know if there is anything that I can do to assist with this case as this is not a design flaw.

  2. Greg Scholand

    They did it to general aviation, now their sights are set on boating. Let’s see, he was drunk, allowed a horde to congregate in the bow and then in a slow turn wasn’t able to yank the lanyard…..yeah, what am I thinking….it’s the boat company. Will the last sane person in America please turn the lights out when you leave!

  3. enginecom

    The end of boat building is what we are looking forward to if this verdict stands. Hopefully its overturned or reduced on apeal. The CG had recently readjusted persons on board to reflect the state of fatness of the population. The labeling if inadequate needs to stress less people by weight and to distribute them correctly. That is the only design flaw possible in these cases. Unfortunately you can’t fix stupid.

  4. George F.

    So, if I build a boat that does not operate safely when loaded beyond the rated load and is not safe when driven by a drunk driver I am 80% liable for any accidents. How have we let our country come to this?

  5. Robert Fortin

    This is a very bad accident for those 2 people hurt so badly…., but the driver owner is ultimately responsible at 100% for negligence to operate this boat with overloaded
    situation, all those passengers are to his mercy………..
    when a boat becomes overloaded like this, the boat is over capacity, and the driver with it’s inappropriate driving can cause very serious damage, I dont know why the company MC would be that much responsible, The insurance company are just trying to find a guilty that can cover the most amount of money…………… I would be very scarred to be a boat builder looking at how this case is turning to….
    There is this driver with alcool, combined to probably heat and hot weather, make his ability even more affected, and Howcome he didn’t stop when they felt into the water ??? this is incredible……howcome that many people in the boat ! in the first place !!
    This would have probably not happen if there was just a raisonnable amount of people on board……..

  6. whattheheck

    Regardless of who’s at fault for what, who the heck thinks 18 people can safely fit in a 24 foot boat?!?!? That’s ridiculous and sounds like overloading is definitely possible.

  7. jed Guertin

    My take is a little bit different MC’s position and the comments. At 68, a long time competitive water skier and racing and cruising sailor, I feel that the MC has played a serious, but clearly not anywhere near an 80% part in this fiasco. Maybe 25%.

    It’s main mistake is not new to the industry. The industry has been simply trying to cater to the stupid whims of the public at large and building and promoting boats that fits the general public’s buying craziness.

    Come on, a 24 ft low free-board runabout that holds 18 people and a skier/wakeboarder all at the same time. The only time I ever took more than three people on an 18 ft Century (Arabian) with a skier in tow was : (A) when we were towing more than one skier, then I’d have a spotter for each skier, or (B) when I had a skier whose parents, kids, etc. wanted to watch. Then the number rose to 5 at most.

    But what did MC expect. They build a party/ski boat, list it as OK for 18 people, and expect some drunken idiots to not put 12 people on the bow (I’m suprised he didn’t have all 18 in the bow) and expect nothing to happen.

    And the education courses are ridiculous. A couple Saturdays of pablum and off you go with a fast and dangerous weapon.

    $30 million is off the wall, however, I think the industry has a problem and needs to move closer to its nautical roots if it hopes to survive.

  8. Thomas W. Pockman

    People need to wake up the boat company should not be held up because some mineless fool did not have a clue as to what he was doing. The jury should be fined for being so stupid as well. What ever happened to the days when I am responsible for my actions and no one eles????????? Now everyone wants to blame someone or thing instread of growing up way to many lawyers.
    same with Government. To many and all are lawyers

  9. Joefactor

    I am totally against people operating a boat when they are drunk , but 0.04 doesn’t sound like much as far as being over the limit ? How many beers does it take reach that level ? 2 or 3.

  10. T.Visser

    This is the beginning of the end if Mastercraft is at fault, which they clearly are not. The jury is dead wrong but what do you expect from CA. Hope the appeal if any goes in the right direction.

  11. entitled

    Boat loading & distribution is about as basic as it can get for a boat owner. It’s unfortunate that he only had a $1 million dollar liability policy forcing the greedy lawyer (what is 40% of $30 million anyway) to go for deeper pockets. This is the real tragedy!

  12. Eric

    This is sad that we have become the country that sues for everything. in a case like this they have reason but just to go after the big company because they have the money is were we get greedy. I own a X-45 and went out this weekend with 12 guys and 5 up front and nothing went wrong but yes the boat can take on water if you dont pay attention and having 12 up there he prob had no Idea what was going on. trying to impress the ladies??? To blame mastercraft for this idiots dumb move is stupid every wakeboard boat sits like that and can take water if you dont watch what your doing not just a mastercraft

  13. john ennis

    The boat was over loaded and had a boozed up operator. Take the jury out and shoot it.

  14. Rusty Pearsall

    Load the bow of the boat with all the lawyers and jury and run it full speed it to the dock case closed

  15. Jim

    I see negligence on all sides. Shouldn’t at least several of the 19 known the boat was overloaded and unbalanced? Did they not know the operator had been drinking either? There is such a thing as a bad boat design too. Too many who can lay up fiberglass feel that they are qualified naval architects. And why the comment about California? This verdict could have been made anywhere.

  16. jed Guertin

    You can blame California, the driver, the jury and the judge. But:

    1. We are a litigious country, always have been.
    2. There are or were a lot of fools out there that could buy this type of boat, with little or no boating knowledge.
    3. We promote these boats to look and feel like your family living room, with 18 people in it.
    4. We promote it as a party boat, lights, stereo, GPS, etc.
    5. The State training/licensing programs are a farce, we all know it. It’s like motorcycles. You can buy a 150 0-60min 4 seconds mph bike and the only test is done at 5 mph around some cones.
    6. Go to any small lake or bay and it’s a zoo. Try the inter-coastal in FL it’s no better.

    I could go on.

    A few suggestions:

    a. Stricter training of boaters new and old.
    b. Lower the boat capacity no matter what the current standard is.
    c. Have a tight standard on training of dealers. Provide a comprehensive training for owners/operators regarding weight distribution, handling, etc.
    d. Have the boat owner/operator and the dealer sign off on the training.

    Please feel free to add items.

    Bottom line, is the captain of that boat is responsible for all aspects of the vessel. However, the training process of a captain has been seriously diluted. And I feel the industry, to sell more bigger, faster boats, has played a part in that dilution.

    Most of us have a good idea as to what happened. Five minutes after the boarder falls the captain is finds out. Boarder is not to be seen. Boat engine is shut down and the wheel turned sharply, stern rises, bow goes down, wake hits the bow and VOILA. My question is “Where do 12 people sit in the bow?”

  17. X-Star

    Let me get this straight, this guy is drunk, overloads his boat, put’s 12 people in the bow, maybe has the ballast tanks loaded, the party is cranked up with tunes blasting, and most on board including the captain are acting like idiots. After the power off, turn-around the bow dunks in the water and flushes people overboard. Turning the key off, or at least putting this thing in N would have prevented most of the injurys. The jury is just plain wrong and MC should fight this to the end.

  18. Matt L.

    This is completely ridiculous and not Mastercraft’s fault. I had a classic V style bow rider boat with a very small open bow that would take on water during a slow turn when you ran into your own wake. There is no design flaw in the X45. The boat owner was reckless. Boating is very dangerous and you have to know how to operate the boat safely. 12 people in the bow is not safe. If he was watching when the people fell out of the boat he could have taken the boat out of gear and no one would have been hurt.

  19. ThomasBrookingCPA

    I would like to see a warning sticker on my pick-up truck to not overload the bed with people…

  20. Capt Brett

    This is not justice…. This is total liberal ideal stupidity…..

    This really makes me want to continue to stay in the boat business….. For the sake of my boat supplier, I pray that my customers don’t have any mishaps like this…..

    It’s sad to hear that those kids got hurt and I feel bad for them. But, they got into the boat and the boat captain took full responsibility for his pax. MC has nothing to do with how the product was abused by the captain’s negligence.
    I fly my airplane based on how it is loaded and I pilot my boat based pax onboard and weight distribution. I turn more gently and use appropriate speeds.
    I would hope that people would drive their car more sensibly when it is loaded with passengers.

    It’s good to see that most responders agree that MC is not responsible for this. They build a fantastic product and it is clearly the driver’s fault, hands down, 100%.

    For those of you feel that the judge, the jury, and the lawyers are right and anyone who can honestly defend the jury’s decision: Partners, you deserve what’s coming around the corner. Boat and parts prices and insurances will sky rocket just like it did in general aviation. All because of our flawed legal system and liberal ideals. We are losing our country at an accelerated pace……

    The best boat builder in Orlando used to put a warning label at the helm of the boat and the other manufacturer’s knocked them saying that the boat was unsafe. I’ll be you are going to see those labels installed on every boat in the future.

  21. ex boat guy

    A couple of things people need to remember:
    Capacity is listed at 18 people – go look at the website, there is no way that 18 people can safely sit in that boat, no matter what size they are
    Also, the bow is very low with minimal seat back height (except for the 2 fwd facing seats)

    As someone who spent a lot of time designing boats in this size range.
    The NMMA/USCG calcs for small boats do not make sense, once you get over about 21′ in length, the calculation (because it is based on hull volume) rises exponetially, giving a wildly high potential capacity. We had an internal rule that listed person capacity could not exceed the actual number of seating locations. This often put us in a position where marketing asked for more person capacity ‘because the competition has it’, we always refused. We also ensured that each seating location had a readily accessable handhold.
    Also in response to ‘Capt Brett’ the best boat builder in Orlando HAD to apply that label, because the boat would not pass the NMMA ‘quick turn test’ It was required for NMMA certification!

  22. marine biz sites

    Judging by pictures of an ’06 X45 (correct hull style???), 12 people in the bow must have been pretty crowded. It looks like maybe 5 or 6 adults could be seated. With 12, some must have been either standing, sitting on the gunnels or on the bow ahead of the seating area which would be dangerous on any bowrider boat. Without knowing if any evidence was presented that the boat turns safely with a reasonable bow load, it’s hard to know if this was a fair verdict. But if the defense lawyers were putting too much emphasis on the driver being intoxicated (at .04), it’s no wonder they lost. Who would buy that load of BS?

  23. captjeff

    AS an owner of a mc 240, which is a somewhat different hull, but still very low freeboard design at 24.5ft. there is no way to fit 18 people on board sensibly. Im trying to figure out why mc even had that labeled as such. regardless, if i took responsibility for carrying 18 people on my boat, then that ends their responsbility. the boat can handle the weight, that much i know. with fatsacs in place ive had ten on board. but would still never pilot the boat in an unsafe manner. period.

    so, all that aside, if ive got 18 people on board, there is no way im making a turn at any high or low speed of any serious angle. the captain was clearly at fault and stupidly foolish.

    I can only assume the future will hold these in front of a coast guard proceedings. I do not think that the verdict would have been the same if it had taken place in front of maritime professionals. In reviewing cases over the years, an extremely small percentage ever cited the manufacturer of a vessel as being at fault or a contributing factor. At some point, licenses will have to be required for all boaters and accidents involving death reviewed on a similar format to the aviation industry.

    30 million on this case, and the recent 3.4m case where the idiot captain backed down on a swimmer behind the stern and subsequently cut the young mans leg off, are both indicative of where this is all going. serious regulation with a recreational boaters license and much higher premiums. the manufacturers will have no choice but to lobby for such legislation to protect themselves as broadly as possible.

  24. matthew s.

    mastercraft just took the ultimate master shaft in this deal. craft builds an excellent boat. instead of testing the hulls design more. which i dont believe there is anything wrong with it in the first place.. they should do common sense test on the buyers of there product. For the jury of this case. you are all now able to draw a check also, for being mentally disabled.
    this is kalifornication at its best!!! SAD

  25. Capt Brett

    I wasn’t referring to the ski boat manufacturer in my comment that ex-boat guy remarked on. I was actually referring to a stern drive builder with a unique hull design who has never had an issue with the NMMA quick turn test. I just sold one of those old boats this weekend and I did a quick turn at 45mph for the buyer. I can’t put the brand name in my comments because I might get sued for offending someone in CA. I’m going to become the next Ex-Boat Guy and just stick to flying. Too many people doing too much sueing in this business. Anyone who believes MC is culpable has lost their minds.

  26. Weezer

    What is not listed at the top of this article is that there were 19 PEOPLE in the boat!!! 12 in bow alone!!! Are you kidding me?? Any boater with half a brain knows that when you throttle down the boat after being on plane, the bow will dip in the turn. And with 12 in the front, holy crap!! Its amazing the boat didn’t capsize. Alcohol involved……….the driver should be put in jail for life………stop blaming companies for people’s stupidity. I’m sorry but the only person who should pay in the driver……what a dope.

  27. Richard177

    I had a similar situation recently in a Mastercraft 245 SS where we were only 3 in 27Ft boat with a following sea I backed off the throttle too quickly and bow dropped into wave no bigger that 3 ft. we were swamped. Engine cut and luckily we were able to summon help and no one was hurt. Boat sank and is we think a total loss. Waiting for insurance verdict. Now with this judgement I am convinced that there is a design flaw as we were not going more that 10 mph in a straight line. How do I go about getting Mastercraft to acknowledge this and help with repairs and hopefully some modifications to stop this happening again?

  28. CaptainA

    This is ridiculous. This is operator error. This is a reason why boater should be required to get a license. Wooops—I forgot. The industry lobby’s against boaters being required to get a license. I would argue if boaters were required to get licenses the boating industry would be better protected from law suits.

  29. lysle

    I own a wakeboard/ski school. I have never been in any runabout boat where you can not dunk a bow under the water if you wanted to. Plain and simple boats are dangerous and people need to pay attention. But enough belly aching, is there an email for the judge in the case where everyone in the industry who knows how ludicrous this is can email him. Or who sits in the state legislator that we can spam with emails of disgust so we can limit RETARDED law suits like this one and save all of us some money. I would compare the lawyers in the case to prostitutes but that would give the prostitutes a bad name. Even socialist Germany would never allow this kind of law suit.

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