Standard for Manufacturer Warnings Modified: Warning Must Include a Level of Specificity Justified by the Magnitude of the Risk
Supreme Court of the State of Utah: During a fishing trip at a reservoir in Morgan County, Utah, Craig Feasel, a passenger on a bass fishing boat, was severely injured “when repeatedly struck by a boat propeller after he . . . [was] ejected into the water.” Monty Martinez, who was operating the boat, was also ejected into the water. Martinez was not wearing the stop switch lanyard provided by the manufacturer at the time of the incident. The unmanned boat’s engine continued to run, causing the boat to run in circles through the water, trapping and striking Feasel repeatedly.
Feasel sued Tracker Marine LLC (“Tracker”), the boat manufacturer, and Brunswick Corporation (“Brunswick”), the engine manufacturer, alleging they failed to adequately warn the driver of the dangers of not wearing the lanyard. Feasel also claimed Defendants failed their duty to warn boat passengers of the danger. Defendants “argued that the warnings they provided were standard in the industry” and thus they were not liable for Feasel’s injuries.
Tracker’s warnings consisted of “notices placed in the boat as well as in each company’s owner’s manual.” The warning in Tracker’s manual “contained a description of the lanyard and a warning label indicating that the lanyard should be tested, used, and replaced if not functioning” though it “did not expressly state what harm may arise.” Another section of the manual did indicate that “failure to abide by the warning may result in serious bodily injury or death.” Tracker also included “[s]everal checklists” to follow before operating the boat that mentioned the lanyard. “But the lanyard was not mentioned in the passenger-safety discussion, the emergency procedures section, or the person overboard subsection.” Nor did the manual “include any information concerning” the “circle of death.” The Court found that this “circle of death” phenomenon, where an unmanned boat turns sharply to the right potentially trapping “the ejected driver or passenger in its circle, causing the propeller to repeatedly strike and cause serious injury or death” was known in the industry.
Brunswick’s “manual explained that the purpose of the stop switch lanyard was to stop the engine if the driver fell overboard or moved too far away.” The manual did state “that ejection was more common in some boats (like bass boasts)” and “noted that when the stop switch was activated, the boat” would “coast for some distance” but would “not complete a full circle.” The manual “further stated that ‘while the boat is coasting, it can cause injury to anyone in the boat’s path.’” However, Brunswick’s manual failed to include any information concerning the “circle of death” phenomenon.
The boat itself had only one notice regarding the lanyard, “a checklist of things the driver should do before starting the engine.” This checklist advised the driver to ensure the lanyard switch was “operational and securely fastened.”
The district court granted summary judgment on behalf of Tracker and Brunswick, finding that there already were numerous warnings Martinez was aware of and failed to heed. The court of appeals reversed concluding the warnings were not adequate under the House standard found in House v. Armour, (929 P.2d 340 Utah 1996). The Supreme Court of the State of Utah modified the third prong of the House standard, adding the warning must be of an intensity and at a level of specificity justified by the magnitude of risk, and remanded the case back to the district court.
Feasel v. Tracker Marine LLC, 2021 WL 3557633 2021 UT 4 (Utah, August 12, 2021).