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Jury returns defense verdict in favor of BRP in Sea-Doo jetboat suit

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Abstract: A Duval County, Florida jury returned a defense verdict in favor of BRP U.S., Inc. in a product liability suit involving allegations of negligence, strict liability, and failure to warn. The accident arose from use of an engine hatch cover on a jetboat, which resulted in partial amputation of a foot, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and other personal injuries.

Scott M. Sarason and Armando G. Hernandez of the Miami office of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, P.A., along with Yves St. Arnaud and Charles-Andre Girard of Bombardier Recreational Products, recently obtained a defense verdict in favor of their client BRP U.S., Inc. in a product liability lawsuit in Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida, after a week long jury trial.

The lawsuit, styled Carmon Sullivan v. BRP U.S., Inc., Case No. 2013-CA-000569, involved Plaintiff's allegations of strict liability design defect, negligent design and failure to warn. BRP’s counsel successfully had Plaintiff's consortium claim dismissed, pursuant to maritime law’s prohibition, and Plaintiff’s warranty claims dismissed pursuant to Florida’s privity requirements. This effectively streamlined the litigation from the outset. Prior to trial, Plaintiff moved for leave to plead punitive damages, which BRP’s counsel opposed at an evidentiary hearing and the trial court denied.

On the date of the accident, January 26, 2012, Plaintiff (a 37 year old female) was performing maintenance in the engine compartment of a 2011 Sea Doo jetboat while it was suspended on a lift in the Plaintiff's backyard. Instead of closing the engine hatch from the cockpit area, which is the only place a user can open the hatch, the Plaintiff climbed onto the gunnel of the jetboat, jumped onto the dock, and then re-boarded the jetboat from the rear swim platform. Once on the rear platform, the Plaintiff positioned her foot in an open, obvious, and clearly observable semicircular opening underneath the open engine hatch. Without looking down first to see where her foot was, Plaintiff pushed the engine hatch closed on her own foot. Plaintiff's foot was stuck for approximately 30 minutes before someone finally came to her assistance and opened the engine hatch to release her foot.

Three of Plaintiff's toes were amputated. Plaintiff was diagnosed with neuropathic pain, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, chronic pain syndrome, and an altered gait as well as constant back, hip, knee, leg and foot pain. Plaintiff underwent two surgeries for implantation of a spinal cord stimulator to address her pain symptoms. Plaintiff’s life care plan costs were in excess of one million dollars.

At trial, Plaintiff contended that BRP knew of the foreseeable risk of severe injury with the unreasonably dangerous and defective design of the engine hatch cover and semicircular opening but did nothing. Plaintiff argued that BRP failed to warn of the foreseeable risk of injury and did not include any information, warnings, or instructions on the jetboat itself, the owner's manual, or the safety video. Plaintiff maintained that BRP’s negligence and/or the defect with regard to the jetboat were the cause of Plaintiff's injuries and sought millions of dollars for disfigurement, mental anguish, pain and suffering, past medical expenses, and noteworthy future medical care needs.

BRP contended that the 2011 Sea Doo jetboat was not defective, unreasonably dangerous, or responsible for this entirely avoidable accident. BRP explained the evaluation, development, and hundreds of hours of testing that went into designing the jetboat and all its parts. BRP also emphasized that not a single other person had ever been injured while using the identical engine hatch design on other Sea Doo jetboat models. Despite Plaintiff’s attempts to exclude such evidence, BRP’s counsel successfully argued for the admissibility, relevance, and probative value pertaining to the lack of other accidents.

BRP maintained that because the semicircular opening underneath the engine hatch was so open, obvious, and clearly observable, there was no duty to warn. BRP informed the jury that Plaintiff had opened and closed the same engine hatch on the jetboat at least 50 times in the 10 month period prior to the date of the accident without any injury. BRP had Plaintiff concede that she had seen the open and obvious semicircular opening prior to the DOA. As such, BRP argued that Plaintiff was solely responsible for her own injuries.   BRP further argued that in the three and a half years since the date of the accident, Plaintiff continued to regularly use the jetboat (including opening and closing the very same engine hatch cover without any changes or modifications) without any accident or injury.

The jury returned a verdict finding no negligence on the part of BRP and no defect with the 2011 Sea Doo jetboat. The Plaintiff will not appeal the jury verdict.

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