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Supreme Court Holds That Injury Victims May Sue Boat Engine Manufacturers for Failure to Install Propeller Guards

TLPJ Beats Back Federal Preemption of Boat Safety Claims

U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo by Jonathan Hutson The west façade of the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photos by Jonathan Hutson

On December 3, 2002, the United States Supreme Court issued a 9-0 ruling in Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine holding that the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 (FBSA) and a 1990 decision by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) not to require propeller guards on recreational motor boat engines does not bar injury victims from suing boat engine manufacturers under state law for failing to install propeller guards on their boats. The Court unanimously rejected the boat manufacturer’s preemption defense, holding that a lawsuit seeking damages for injuries caused by an unguarded boat propeller does not conflict with any federal purposes.

TLPJ Staff Attorney Michael J. Quirk, plaintiff Rex Sprietmsa, and TLPJ Staff Attorney Leslie A. Brueckner. Photo by Jonathan Hutson TLPJ Staff Attorney Michael J. Quirk, plaintiff Rex Sprietsma, and TLPJ Staff Attorney Leslie A. Brueckner.

"This decision resoundingly reaffirms tort victims’ right to seek recovery for their injuries," said Trial Lawyers for Public Justice Staff Attorney Leslie A. Brueckner, who argued the case on October 15, 2002. "The Court made clear that a federal decision not to regulate a particular product cannot wipe out any common law claims. We are thrilled that Rex Sprietsma and his family will finally have their day in court."

The case originates from the tragic death of Jeanne Sprietsma, who was fatally struck by the propeller of an outboard engine when she fell from a recreational motor boat. 

The engine was designed and manufactured by defendant Mercury Marine and contained no propeller guard or other safety device to protect Mrs. Sprietsma from bodily contact with the whirling propeller blades. Her husband, Rex Sprietsma, sued Mercury Marine for his wife’s wrongful death in Illinois state court.

The Illinois Supreme Court previously held that such claims are preempted by the FBSA and by the USCG’s decision not to regulate propeller guards. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted TLPJ’s petition for review. In support of TLPJ’s lawsuit, the United States and the Attorneys General of 17 States filed amicus briefs arguing that claims like Mr. Sprietsma’s are not preempted.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the boat manufacturer’s argument that a need for regulatory uniformity mandated a finding of federal preemption. Delivering the opinion of the unanimous Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that "the concern for uniformity does not justify the displacement of state common-law remedies that compensate accident victims and their families and that serve the Act’s more prominent objective, emphasized by its title, of promoting boating safety."

"The Supreme Court recognized that the paramount objective of statutes like the Federal Boat Safety Act is product safety, not national uniformity," said TLPJ Staff Attorney Michael J. Quirk, co-counsel for Sprietsma. "State lawsuits that provide compensation for injury victims and their families thus serve to further federal policy goals."

"This decision goes far beyond the narrow issue of propeller guards," said Brueckner. "The federal government often decides not to take regulatory action with respect to a particular product. If the decision below had been affirmed, then common law claims could have been wiped off the map in numerous areas. Today the Supreme Court has made clear that this can’t happen."

At least 447 recreational boaters suffered injury and nine died as a result of being struck by a motor or propeller between 1995-98, according to the USCG. However, the federal agency points out that the full extent of injuries caused by propeller strikes is unknown, due to under reporting.

In addition to Brueckner and Quirk, plaintiff’s legal team in Sprietsma included TLPJ Executive Director Arthur H. Bryant; Joseph A. Power, Jr., Todd A. Smith and Devon C. Bruce of Chicago’s Power, Rogers & Smith; and John B. Kralovec of Chicago’s Kralovec, Jambois & Schwartz.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, along with TLPJ’s briefs and the key amicus briefs in the Sprietsma case, are available on TLPJ’s web site at www.tlpj.org.


Trial Lawyers for Public Justice is the only national public interest law firm dedicated to using trial lawyers’ skills and resources to advance the public good. Founded in 1982, TLPJ utilizes a nationwide network of more than 2,700 outstanding trial lawyers to pursue precedent-setting and socially significant litigation. It has a wide-ranging litigation docket in the areas of consumer rights, environmental protection, toxic torts, worker safety, civil rights and liberties, and access to the courts. TLPJ is the principal project of The TLPJ Foundation, a not-for-profit membership organization. It has offices in Washington, DC, and Oakland, CA.