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The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reports there are approximately 111,000 registered personal watercraft in the state of Florida. In 2013, these recreational water vehicles, which include Jet Skis, Sea-Doos, and Waverunners, were involved in 137 accidents, with Miami-Dade reporting more than any other county.
These accidents resulted in 125 injuries and 10 deaths. While most of those involved did not die, those injured often suffer serious and sometimes lifelong consequences. Among the worst are internal injuries and orifice injuries caused by jet thrust. This is the jet of water ejected from the craft.
On personal watercraft, passengers and operators are often thrown or fall off the back of the vehicle. If riders are not wearing a protective wet suit, that thrust of water is propelled with such force that it can result in serious internal injuries.
One recent case in which litigation was brought for this very reason was Colombo v. BRP US, Inc., before the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One.
As our product liability attorneys understand it, the plaintiffs, who were young teens at the time of the accident, were awarded millions of dollars for permanent injuries sustained after falling off the back of a Sea-Doo. The defendant appealed, but the appellate panel affirmed the judgment.
A big part of the issue was whether the company took sufficient measures to warn consumers or riders about the possibility of jet thrust injury if they did not wear a protective wet suit.
Two friends were taken out on a Sea-Doo craft as a “thank-you” for helping their sister move in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend’s friend worked at a watercraft rental company and agreed to take them out for a day on the bay. Both wore a two-piece bathing suit. Nobody – including the operator – wore a wet suit bottom or any other protective clothing. They did wear life jackets. No instruction was given on personal watercraft safety.
Printed material underneath the handlebars on the console of the craft warned severe injury to body cavities could occur if riders fell into the water near the jet thrust nozzle. The warning specifically states normal swimwear would not protect against such injuries in either males or females. However, the plaintiffs did not see this warning as riders, were not told of it, and had no intention of operating the vehicle, and thus they were never in a position where they could read it. Both testified that, had they been warned or seen the label, they would have insisted on wearing a wetsuit bottom.
After falling off one time and climbing back on the craft, the two fell off (or, according to them, were tossed off by the operator) and suffered severe orifice injuries. They required emergency treatment and surgery. One has permanent trouble controlling bowel movements, and the other has been told she will likely not be able to have children.
At trial, jurors found the owner of the watercraft one-third liable, the operator one-third liable, and the manufacturer one-third liable. Additionally, the jury awarded punitive damages to the girls against the manufacturer, finding its conduct revealed reckless or callous disregard for the plaintiffs’ rights and safety.
The manufacturer appealed, arguing the evidence was insufficient to find it failed to adequately warn and furthermore that a finding of punitive damages was unwarranted.
The jury’s decision was affirmed, with the appellate court pointing out the company did know of other claims of orifice injuries prior to this occurrence, and still it did not take action to provide an adequate warning or redesign the device to significantly reduce the potential risk.
If you have been injured as a result of a personal watercraft accident, contact our experienced legal team.
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