Liability in Boating Accidents with Steering System Failure

boat_rowing_boat_blue-1024x746Hydraulic steering is part of modern-day recreational vessels. When a boat’s hydraulic steering fails, what party bears liability? The owner, driver, or manufacturer? In the following case, the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal was asked to determine liability and proper damages when a boat’s hydraulic steering system failed.

On May 7, 2005, a boat owned by Glen Vamvoras and operated by his son Daniel Vamvoras was traveling in Lake Charles when its steering failed. As a result, the boat spun wildly, throwing its passenger overboard. The passenger, Derek Hebert, was then struck by the boat’s propeller and tragically died. 

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (“Wildlife & Fisheries”) investigated the accident. It determined that the pre-owned boat purchased by defendant Glen Vamvoras lost its steering due to a hydraulic fluid leak on the boat’s steering system’s hydraulic lines at the hose/nut of the coupling assembly. Teleflex was the manufacturer and supplier of the boat’s hydraulic steering system, but the original Teleflex hoses of this vessel had been replaced by persons unknown with a non-Teleflex hydraulic hose. 

Derek Hebert’s parents brought survival and wrongful death claims and sought punitive damages against several defendants, including Glen and Daniel Vamvoras, drivers of another boat that collided with Vamvoras’s boat after Derek was ejected, various marinas and insurers, and three manufacturers. By the time of the trial, the remaining defendants were Glen Vamvoras, Daniel Vamvoras, and Teleflex. 

On appeal, the court addressed issues raised by Teleflex. They contended the trial court erred in granting directed verdicts in favor of Vamvoras in the first trial because the Vamvorases knew or should have known about the unreasonable risk of harm associated with a loss of fluid in the hydraulic system. Under La. C.C. art. 2317.1, Glen and Daniel are only at fault for Derek Hebert’s death if Teleflex can establish that the Vamvorases “knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice, or defect which caused the damage, that the exercise of reasonable care could have prevented the damage, and that [they] failed to exercise such reasonable care.” 

Under Louisiana jurisprudence, granting a motion for directed verdict is proper where there is no evidence that the defendant knew or should have known that a product was defective due to inadequate warnings. In this case, the court held that there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that the Vamvorases knew or should have known about the risk concerning a leak in the SeaStar hydraulic system. Furthermore, the court held that the scope of duty to maintain a boat in reasonable repair does not extend far enough to hold the Vamvorases liable for Derek’s death because there was no significant ease of association between their conduct and Derek’s death. Roberts v. Benoit, 605 So.2d 1032 (La. 1991). It was not foreseeable that the hydraulic system would fail and that Derek would be ejected from their boat, and Teleflex offered no evidence to the contrary. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the trial courts granting of directed verdicts in favor of Glen and Daniel Vamvoras, and the judgment in appeal was affirmed.

Teleflex also argued numerous abuses of discretion from the trial court. These issues included 1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting the plaintiff a new trial, 2) whether the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the duties of a component part manufacturer, 3) whether the trial court erred in failing to bifurcate the adjudication of compensatory and punitive damages in the second trial, 4) whether the jury abused its discretion or manifestly erred in awarding punitive damages in the second trial, and 5) whether the jury abused its discretion in awarding excessive punitive damages. However, the appellate court held that none of these claims had merit. 

Under La. C.C.P. art. 1973, “a new trial may be granted in any case if there is good ground therefor, except as otherwise provided by law.” In this case, the court held that the trial court’s reasoning for believing that a miscarriage of justice would result from the jury’s reliance upon the improperly admitted and prejudicial evidence was good grounds, and thus it was not an abuse of discretion to grant a new trial in this case.

The court held that this products liability dispute was properly brought under general maritime law since it concerns an accident on navigable waters. Yamaha Motor Corp, U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 116 S.Ct. 619 (1996). Crucially for this case, a manufacturer is liable under maritime law for harm resulting from their negligent failure to warn unsuspecting customers of the risks created by its product. Dandridge v. Crane Co, No. 2:12-cv-00484-DCN, 2016 WL 319938, at *2 (D.S.C. 1/27/16) (quoting Connor v. Alfa Laval, Inc., 842 F.Supp.2d 791 (E.D. Pa. 2012). The trial court’s instructions to the jury reflected this and were drawn from the Restatement of Torts, the Louisiana Product Liability Act, and the case law. 

Furthermore, it is well settled under Louisiana jurisprudence that “an appellate court must exercise great restraint before it reverses a jury verdict because of erroneous jury instructions.” Nicholas v. Allstate Ins. Co., 99-2522, p. 8 (La. 8/31/00), 765 So.2d 1017, 1023. Upon review, the court affirmed all of the jury instructions provided by the trial court. For example, the court rejected Teleflex’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that the duties of a component part manufacturer to provide warnings are distinct from those of the manufacturer of an end product sold to the public because it would have misled the jury because it provided a partial paraphrase of the law that omitted the essence of the referenced section of law. Restatement (Third) of Torts: Prod. Liab. § 5. 

In response to Teleflex’s claim regarding the bifurcation of damages, the court held that the trial court had the power to define and limit the scope of the new trial under La. C.C.P. art. 1971, and that under La. C.C.P. art. 1562 bifurcation of damages cannot be ordered without the consent of both parties. Thus, the court held that it was not an abuse of the trial court’s discretion to try the compensatory and punitive damages together.

The court also denied Teleflex’s appeal of the jury verdict finding it liable for compensatory damages for its failure to warn of the inherent danger of its product. The court held that evidence and testimony at trial supported the jury’s finding that Teleflex had a duty, and breached such duty, to warn users that a hydraulic fluid leak in the steering system would cause the boat the spin out of control and eject passengers in the path of possibly fatal injuries from the propeller.

Finally, the court affirmed the jury’s award of punitive damages because it was wanton and reckless of Teleflex to ignore the results of tests conducted in 1989 that revealed the danger of steering loss for the hydraulic system, especially when an inexpensive warning decal informing the consumer of such danger could have saved lives like Derek Hebert’s. Poe v. PPG Indus, 00-1141 (La. App. 3 Cir. 3/28/01), 782 So.2d 1168. Additionally, after a review of jurisprudence associated with such damages, the court affirmed the amount of punitive damages awarded by the jury in this case, holding that they were not excessive and did not violate constitutional due process. See Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 128 S.Ct. 2605 (2008). See also BMW of North America Inc. v. Gore, 517 US 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 134 L.Ed.2d 809 (1996).

This case demonstrates the complex nature of lawsuits that arise after an accident on the water. Make sure you seek out an experienced maritime attorney before proceeding with such claims.


Written by: Hannah Keller

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on General Maritime Law and Products Liability: Maritime Injury: The Jones Act and How it Applies to Recovering Damages

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