Originally created 03/03/98

Court asked to reinstate suit

WASHINGTON -- Parents of a young woman killed in a 1993 boating accident on Lake Thurmond asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to reinstate their lawsuit accusing the manufacturer of the boat's engine of negligence under Georgia law.

The lawsuit by the parents of Kathryn Lewis was dismissed by a trial judge who ruled that the 1971 Boat Safety Act, which gives the Coast Guard authority to set national boat safety standards, takes precedence over state law.

But David Hudson of Augusta, attorney for Miss Lewis' parents, told the justices the judge interpreted the federal law too broadly.

He said Congress never intended for the federal statute to pre-empt state common law that holds manufacturers responsible for the safety of their products.

"If we prevail, we will only enhance the ultimate goal of the Boat Safety Act, which is to improve the safety of those using boats," Mr. Hudson said.

Miss Lewis, a 19-year-old college student from Healdton, Okla., was spending a day with her boyfriend's family in a boat on Thurmond Lake when the accident happened near the Fort Gordon recreation area in June 1993.

While the boat was towing her boyfriend on an inner tube, the driver made a right turn, and she either fell or was thrown from the left side.

Once in the water, she was struck repeatedly by the boat's propeller as the vessel ran over her. She died instantly from massive head injuries, Columbia County Deputy Coroner Raymond Quarles said at the time.

The engine did not have a propeller guard.

Miss Lewis' parents, Vicky and Gary Lewis, sued Brunswick Corp., the designer and manufacturer of the boat's engine, alleging negligence under Georgia common law for failing to install guards on the propeller.

But in dismissing the case, the trial judge ruled that the issue of Brunswick's alleged negligence should be based on federal, not state, law.

And the Coast Guard, acting under the federal law, had specifically declined in 1990 to require boat propeller guards.

Kenneth Geller, attorney for Brunswick Corp., told the justices that Congress gave the Coast Guard specific authority to set boat safety rules because it wanted to establish uniform, national boat design standards.

"You can't build one boat for South Carolina and another boat for Georgia," Mr. Geller said, noting that Lake Thurmond sits on the border of the two states.

Since the Coast Guard refused to require boat propeller guards, Mr. Geller argued, states like Georgia are prohibited by the 1971 law from imposing their own requirements.

Several justices, however, questioned whether the Coast Guard's decision not to impose a propeller guard requirement bars a state from acting on its own or voids a state's product liability common law.

"We have a situation here where the Coast Guard didn't take action," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "That may leave open the possibility of action under state law."

Assistant Solicitor General David C. Frederick sided with Miss Lewis' parents, arguing that Congress did not intend for the 1971 law to take the place of state common law claims. The court is expected to rule in the case by July.


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