Court OKs state lawsuits in pleasure-boating deaths Ski maker had sought to apply federal law

January 10, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a major ruling on recreational boating, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that families of people who are killed in on-water accidents may seek wide-ranging money damages in state courts.

Ruling in a case involving a 12-year-old girl killed in a personal-ski accident in Puerto Rico, the court wiped out the possibility that fatal recreational-boating accidents could be pursued only under federal law, limited to reimbursement for funeral expenses.

The justices rejected a claim by Yamaha Motor Corp., the maker of the ski craft involved in the 1989 accident in Puerto Rico, that federal maritime law should apply to all deaths in U.S. waters.

The court, however, said it was ruling only on the law that would govern recreational-boating accidents that result in death, not those resulting in injury. It said the other issue could arise in the future.

Personal skis have become popular in this country, and one result has been a rising number of accidents involving the speedy watercraft. Last summer, Maryland reported its first fatal accidents -- three -- involving such skis.

In 1994, the latest available figures show, 56 people nationwide died in watercraft accidents. The recreational boating industry has annual sales of more than $11 billion, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The case that reached the Supreme Court involved Natalie Calhoun of Philadelphia. She rented a Yamaha "Windjammer" watercraft at a resort in Humacao, Puerto Rico, while vacationing with friends. The ski slammed into a moored boat, and she was killed.

Her parents sued Yamaha, claiming that the ski's design and manufacture were faulty. They sought damages for the loss of income Natalie would have earned in the future, the loss of her companionship and support, and punitive damages.

Yamaha argued that, because federal law should govern, only funeral expenses could be recovered. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the unanimous decision rejecting that plea.

Justice Ginsburg said that the court, in a major ruling 25 years ago saying that federal maritime law controlled cases involving maritime workers' on-water deaths, did not intend to rule out more generous money claims in state court for recreational boating.

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