Ruling Limits Product Liability Under Maritime Law

A federal appeals court has ruled that under maritime law, only the end users or intended consumers of a product can sue for damages, not “bystanders” who might be injured.

“This case will be of interest to manufacturers and sellers of products in the maritime arena, as well as lawyers and firms with products-liability and maritime practices,” according to Clark Hill, the firm that represented the defendant in the case. The ruling could be important for limiting liability for makers of both recreational and commercial marine products.

The Fifth Circuit judge made the ruling in a “case of first impression,” meaning it is the first time a federal court has addressed this issue. The case is Garcia v. USA (19-40718), in which a woman was killed after being struck by a vessel being operated by the Coast Guard while she was swimming at night across a shipping channel. Among the claims made by her heirs was that the vessel design was defective because it didn’t properly allow for a wide enough view ahead. 

That claim became separated from the other claims and was ruled on separately. The Fifth Circuit ruled that as a “bystander”—i.e., not an intended user of the vessel—the plaintiff did not have standing to sue the vessel’s manufacturer for the alleged injury-causing defect. The defendant was Safe Boats International LLC.

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The court ruled the way it did because it adopted a legal summation or compendium of legal opinion called the Second Restatement of Torts, said Jadd Masso, a general appellate lawyer and one of the lead attorneys who argued the case before the Fifth Circuit. Masso is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Masso, who specializes in arguing before appeals courts, estimates that about a quarter of his cases involve maritime law. Mark Freeman was the lead maritime law specialist.

These restatements of tort cases, made periodically, are not binding in themselves, but they do cite binding decisions. The Second Restatement was put together in the 1960s by the American Law Institute. In this Second Restatement, it was stated that only the user or consumer of a product ought to be able to sue for defects.

In the 1990s, said Masso, another restatement, the Third Restatement of tort law, was put together that omitted that phrase. Since the 1960s, most states do, in fact, allow bystanders to sue for alleged product defects under state law. 

But most maritime law cases in which this issue has come up have relied on the Second Restatement. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the Second Restatement continues to govern all maritime law cases, which must remain consistent across state jurisdictions. As a result, the court held that only end users or consumers of products can sue for product defects under maritime law.