Michigan Appeals Court Holds Plaintiffs Failed to Establish Design Defect and Failure to Warn in Boating Accident Case

The Michigan Appeals Court recently affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary disposition to a defendant in a Michigan boating accident case. Specifically, the appeals court held that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact regarding defective design and failure to warn.

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The plaintiff was injured while pontoon boating in June 2013. Before the accident, her husband purchased a boat hoist and a canopy frame manufactured and sold by defendant NuCraft. He also purchased a vinyl canopy from the defendant. He testified that, at some point before the night of the accident, he spoke with NuCraft’s vice president about how to best install the canopy. He planned to use the hoist and the canopy assembly for a boat that he kept at his mother’s cottage on Lake Margrethe.

According to the husband, on June 1, 2013, he, his wife, and two other people were at the Lake Margrethe cottage. He said they launched the boat and put the pontoon on the lift. Later, someone mentioned that it might rain, and the group decided to install the canopy on the boat hoist. He said the men got the canopy from the garage and attempted to install it on the boat’s canopy frame. The wife helped the group position the canopy from the back of the boat. The husband claimed that he looked back and heard a splash.

According to the wife, she was standing on a bench on the back of the boat. She was reaching up holding the canvas, when suddenly it slipped from her hands, and she was falling. She thought she would belly flop, but instead she landed on her head. She severed her spinal cord and became a quadriplegic.

The original complaint named one of the guests as the only defendant. The guest asserted that NuCraft was the proximate cause of the wife’s injuries, and the plaintiffs thereafter added NuCraft as a defendant. Following the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint, the parties agreed to dismiss the guest with prejudice.

NuCraft thereafter moved for summary disposition, arguing that the plaintiffs could not state a prima facie case for negligent design and manufacture because they couldn’t establish there was a safer alternative design. NuCraft also argued that the plaintiffs’ failure-to-warn claims should fail because signs on the boat hoist warned users not to work from a boat while it was on the hoist and raised. NuCraft further argued that the husband could not maintain a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress because he did not establish that he suffered physical harm from watching his wife’s accident. NuCraft further asserted that his loss of consortium claim derived from the wife’s negligence claims, and therefore the claim couldn’t be maintained.

The trial court granted NuCraft’s summary judgment motion, reasoning that many boat hoists operate in the same way as NuCraft’s, and therefore there was no design defect to compel users to work at a height. The trial court also reasoned that the design was not inherently defective because there were no bad joints, faulty cables, or other potentially injury-causing defects. The husband could have disregarded the vice president’s advice, but instead he chose to follow the advice and ignore the warning labels on the boat hoist. The trial court further held that no reasonable jury could find that the circumstances surrounding the wife’s¬†injuries were a foreseeable result of the boat hoist’s design. Finally, the court explained that the plaintiffs’ expert’s testimony was not sufficient to state a prima facie claim.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that there were issues of fact regarding whether the lift and canopy were defectively designed and whether NuCraft sufficiently warned about the dangers posed by the canopy and lift system.

Regarding the design defect claim, the appeals court concluded that the plaintiffs presented no evidence that their expert’s allegedly safer design existed before 2011, when NuCraft’s system was manufactured. The expert admitted that he hadn’t performed a cost-utility analysis or spoken to manufacturers regarding whether his design was feasible. The plaintiffs failed to present evidence that their expert’s design was “available,” “developed,” and “economically feasible.” The appeals court held the trial court therefore properly granted summary disposition regarding the design defect claim.

Regarding the failure to warn claim, the appeals court held that the trial court did not err in finding that there was no question of fact regarding whether the defendant breached its duty to warn. The risk at issue was falling while attempting to install the canopy. This risk, the appeals court reasoned, should have been obvious to a reasonably prudent user. The appeals court also believed it was common knowledge to understand that there is a risk of falling while installing a canopy from an elevated boat. The boat was elevated on a hoist, and the canopy was heavy and difficult to install. A reasonably prudent user of the canopy would understand the risk of falling that was inherent in attempting to install the canopy while working from atop the boat.

Even if NuCraft did have a duty to warn, the appeals court reasoned, there was no question of fact regarding whether NuCraft met this burden. The boat hoist contained signs warning consumers not to occupy the boat while it was on the hoist. The signs also warned users not to work from the boat. Thus, even with the vice president’s alleged instructions, the plaintiffs were sufficiently warned to not work from the boat. Accordingly, there were no genuine issues of material fact on this claim.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary disposition to NuCraft.

The boating accident attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent people throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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