Comply with Standards, then Document your Compliance

ABYC’s primary goal is keeping boaters safe, but the group also wants to help businesses avoid costly mishaps
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ABYC president
 John Adey

ABYC president John Adey

As a young marine technician, I found myself explaining to my new wife that I would be home from my first boatyard job at around 1:30 a.m., even though the business closed at 5 p.m. The week prior, UPS had dropped off about 100 recall kits that included slabs of foam, a tube of silicone sealant and a few screws. As the new guy, my job that week was to perform a recall procedure on 45 boats our dealership had sold. I’d remove 36 screws that secured a starboard and port panel, insert the foam, seal and resecure the panel, then document the HIN — and repeat.

It wasn’t until I began my tenure at the American Boat & Yacht Council in the early 1990s that I understood what I was doing. Now I know the boats had either failed a Coast Guard flotation test or, worse, one had been involved in an accident.

These were small aluminum boats, and there were a ton of them out there. Just the ones in our shop spanned around four years of production. There was an allowable rate for each boat — hence the reason the low-paid new guy was assigned the project — but the cost to perform the recall still must have been substantial. Had the boats been built to ABYC standards, the recall could’ve been avoided.

Nobody wants something bad to happen as a result of their product, but sometimes bad things do happen. If manufacturers follow ABYC standards, document their processes and have the proper insurance — which means having access to lawyers and experts who are knowledgeable and experienced in the marine space — they will keep people safer and can protect themselves if they do wind up in court.

The snapshot I shared was in no way a worst-case scenario. If an accident should occur involving one of your products, failure to comply with those standards could put your company in jeopardy — or even worse, it could put lives at risk. Here’s an example.

A family navigated their boat through a crowded anchorage. When the dad found the perfect spot, he left the helm to set the anchor but didn’t shut down the engine. As the passengers unpacked their things, someone tossed a duffel bag toward the helm, where it landed on the throttle lever. The momentum and weight of the bag were enough to shift the idling engine into gear while advancing the throttle, sending the boat lunging forward. Two occupants were instantly tossed over the stern, and the father dislocated his shoulder as he was flung backward.

The boat headed toward a loaded pontoon, giving the occupants just enough time to jump out of the way before impact. Launching over the deck and through the railing, the unmanned boat came to rest, and a quick-thinking occupant of the pontoon pulled the engine cutoff lanyard.

Nobody died, but there were serious injuries that resulted in lifelong issues. This situation involved three elements: a crowded anchorage, a skipper who left the helm with the engine running and a tossed duffel bag. In the end, however, the focus landed on the builder of the boat and dealership that serviced it.

Why? The proper throttle on this boat would include a neutral holding mechanism designed to withstand a load of up to 75 pounds, which would have prevented the bag from moving the lever. Attorneys and experts on both sides of the resulting lawsuit were aware of this and wanted to determine if the boat had been built to standards and whether there were other boats with this problem.

They also wanted to know whether a dealer installed an alternate part during a repair. Even if the builder used the proper part, could he prove it? Did the manufacturer of the throttle or the boat test the component? This is the cycle of manufacturing.

The players on both sides used ABYC resources to remove any doubt about what should have happened as they worked to determine what did happen.

While there is no 100 percent guarantee of an accident-free product or repair, there are steps that must be taken to ensure a reasonably safe product. The engineering standards that ABYC’s industry volunteers have created and updated during the last 60-plus years are one of the first steps toward keeping customers safe and protecting yourself if a customer sues.

The investment is minuscule compared to the potential cost of non-compliance. When it comes to litigation resulting from product use or a repair where the standards apply, the financial outcome between compliance and failure to adhere to standards can be massive. If someone is injured or killed and it’s determined to be the result of non-compliance, the company may not survive the outcome.

Standards are written to provide a bare-minimum requirement. They’re not developed with expensive tests or with the use of premium materials in mind. As technology changes, so do the standards. If a new concept is introduced, the standards can precede or follow to ensure customer safety and adherence to environmental laws.

Documenting compliance is the next step, and it’s important. You not only have to do things to standard, but you have to be able to prove it. This goes for repairers, boat OEMs and component manufacturers.

The moment your work is released for public consumption, the rules change. Complete industries have been created to find fault in the work that you have produced. Insurance companies, expert witnesses and lawyers are waiting at the gates to blame someone; without fail, the manufacturer or repair is on the list of possible culprits.

Nobody wants a product they’ve designed that helps people have fun on the water to cause a safety risk — or even a hassle. Our hope is you’ll never have to defend yourself in court, but following the standards, documenting your adherence to them and having the correct insurance coverage can pay dividends if you do end up in legal trouble.

John Adey is president of the American Boat & Yacht Council, which is based in Annapolis, Md.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.

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