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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