Products Liability Law Daily Injured boat passenger’s warning, design defect claims against steering rod maker rejected
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Friday, June 9, 2017

Injured boat passenger’s warning, design defect claims against steering rod maker rejected

By Susan Engstrom

A boat passenger who was injured when a rod-end attachment on the boat’s hydraulic steering system broke could not sustain failure-to-warn or design defect claims against the equipment’s manufacturer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled. The passenger provided insufficient evidence that his injuries were caused by any failure to warn, and his expert’s report contained no mention of a design defect in the steering rod (Santos-Rodríguez v. SeaStar Solutions, June 8, 2017, Torruella, J.).

On the day of the accident, the passenger was riding in a twin-engine boat equipped with a hydraulic steering system manufactured by SeaStar Solutions (formerly known as Teleflex Canada, Ltd.). The rod connecting the steering system to the right motor had a ball-joint at the end, which broke while the boat was in motion, resulting in a loss of steering and ejecting the passenger from the boat. He sustained extensive injuries that rendered him a paraplegic. A subsequent inspection of the boat revealed that the rod end had failed because of corrosion. The passenger filed suit against SeaStar, asserting claims for failure to warn and design defect. The district court found insufficient evidence to support his claims and granted summary judgment to the manufacturer [see Products Liability Law Daily’s March 16, 2015 analysis]. The passenger appealed.

Instruction manual and maintenance. The steering system’s instruction manual informed owners that the system must be inspected bi-annually by a qualified marine mechanic and that the fittings and seal locations must be checked for leaks or damage and serviced as necessary. The owner in this case had acquired the boat second-hand and did not perform maintenance on it or request maintenance records from the previous owner. Nor had he read the manual or any of the warnings affixed to the steering system. Although he had hired third-party mechanics to maintain the boat, none of them ever alerted him to the corroded rod end.

Failure to warn. Under Puerto Rico law, plaintiffs alleging failure to warn must prove that: (1) the manufacturer knew or should have known of the risk inherent in the product; (2) there were no warnings or instructions, or those provided were inadequate; (3) the absence of warnings made the product inherently dangerous; and (4) the absence of adequate warnings or instructions was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

The district court had ruled that the passenger failed to show causation with respect to his failure-to-warn claim because it was undisputed that the boat’s owner did not read the manual, and there was no evidence that the passenger, the mechanics, or the boat’s previous owner ever read the manual or that anyone communicated the warnings in the manual to the owner. On appeal, the passenger argued that he had raised a genuine issue of material fact because the evidence showed that the manual did not include any warnings about corrosion of the rod end, and his expert had determined that the corrosion "caused loss of control of the steering of the boat," leading to the accident and resultant injuries.

According to the First Circuit, however, the passenger’s argument did not address the district court’s conclusion that there was no evidence from which a trier of fact reasonably could infer that the omission of additional warnings had caused the passenger’s injuries. Unless someone read the manual, no warnings in it could have prevented the passenger’s injuries, the appellate panel explained. Thus, even assuming that the manual did not contain adequate warnings or instructions, this could not be the proximate cause of the passenger’s injuries. As such, the passenger was unable to establish that any failure to warn had caused his injuries.

Design defect. To prove his design defect claim, the passenger had to show that: (1) SeaStar’s equipment had a defect in any of its modalities; (2) the defect existed when it left SeaStar’s control; (3) SeaStar was in the business of selling that type of product; (4) the defect was the adequate cause of his injuries; and (5) the boat’s owner used the product in a manner that was reasonable and foreseeable by the manufacturer.

In this case, the passenger’s expert reported that the rod end was corroded and that this corrosion "was the main cause for the failure of the subject hydraulic steering cylinder rod end." However, no admissible evidence showed that the corrosion was because of some defect in the product’s design. The expert’s report focused almost exclusively on whether the manual included adequate warnings; it did not address whether the product was properly designed. Contrary to the passenger’s assertion, the report did not say that the rod end’s design made it particularly susceptible to corrosion.

In the court’s view, the passenger’s "real argument" was that the rod end’s failure was sufficient evidence of a design defect. However, that was precisely the type of showing rejected by the district court in another case. Accordingly, the passenger failed to present evidence that SeaStar’s design of the rod end was defective.

The case is No. 15-2171.

Attorneys: Carlos Antonio Del Valle Cruz (Del Valle Law Firm) for Bernardino Santos-Rodriguez. Salvador J. Antonetti-Stutts (O'Neill & Borges LLC) for Seastar Solutions, f/k/a Teleflex Canada, Ltd.

Companies: Seastar Solutions, f/k/a Teleflex (Canada), Ltd.

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