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Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine

December 03, 2002

REX R. SPRIETSMA, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JEANNE SPRIETSMA, DECEASED, PETITIONER
v.
MERCURY MARINE, A DIVISION OF BRUNSWICK CORPORATION



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Petitioner's wife was killed in a boating accident when she was struck by the propeller of an outboard motor manufactured by respondent, Mercury Marine, a division of Brunswick Corporation (Brunswick). In his subsequent common-law tort action in Illinois state court, petitioner claimed that Brunswick's motor was unreasonably dangerous because, among other things, it was not protected by a propeller guard. The trial court dismissed the complaint, and the intermediate court affirmed, finding the action expressly pre-empted by the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 (FBSA or Act). The Illinois Supreme Court rejected that rationale, but affirmed on implied pre-emption grounds.

Held: The FBSA does not pre-empt state common-law claims such as petitioner's. Pp. 3-18.

(a) The FBSA was enacted to improve boating safety, to authorize the establishment of national construction and performance standards for boats and associated equipment, and to encourage greater uniformity of boating laws and regulations as among the States and the Federal Government. The Secretary of Transportation has delegated the authority to promulgate regulations establishing minimum safety standards for recreational vessels and associated equipment to the Coast Guard, which must, inter alia, consult with a special National Boating Safety Advisory Council before exercising that authority. The Coast Guard may issue exemptions from its regulations if boating safety will not be adversely affected. Section 10 of the Act sets forth an express pre-emption clause, and §40's saving clause provides that compliance with the Act or standards, regulations, or orders prescribed under the Act does not relieve a person from liability at common law or under state law. When the Coast Guard issued its first regulations in 1972, the Secretary exempted from pre-emption state laws that regulate matters not covered by the federal regulations. The Coast Guard has since promulgated a host of detailed regulations, but it determined in 1990, after an 18-month inquiry by an Advisory Council subcommittee, that available data did not support adoption of a regulation requiring propeller guards. In 2001, the Advisory Council recommended specific propeller guard regulations, but no regulations regarding their use on recreational boats such as the one in this case are currently pending. Pp. 3-10.

(b) The FBSA does not expressly pre-empt petitioner's common-law tort claims. Section 10's express pre-emption clause -- which applies to "a [state or local] law or regulation" -- is most naturally read as not encompassing common-law claims for two reasons. First, the article "a" implies a discreteness that is not present in common law. Second, because "a word is known by the company it keeps," Gustafson v. Alloyd Co., The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Stevens

Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Illinois

Argued October 15, 2002

The question presented is whether a state common-law tort action seeking damages from the manufacturer of an outboard motor is pre-empted either by the enactment of the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, 46 U. S. C. §§4301-4311 (FBSA, 1971 Act, or Act), or by the decision of the Coast Guard in 1990 not to promulgate a regulation requiring propeller guards on motorboats.

I.

On July 10, 1995, petitioner's wife, Jeanne Sprietsma, died as a result of a boating accident on an inland lake that spans the Kentucky-Tennessee border. She was riding in an 18-foot ski boat equipped with a 115-horsepower outboard motor manufactured by respondent, Mercury Marine, which is a division of the Brunswick Corporation (Brunswick). Apparently when the boat turned, she fell overboard and was struck by the propeller, suffering fatal injuries.

Petitioner filed a nine-count complaint in an Illinois court*fn1 seeking damages from Brunswick on state-law theories. Each count alleged that Brunswick had manufactured an unreasonably dangerous product because, among other things, the motor was not protected by a propeller guard.*fn2 The trial court granted respondent's motion to dismiss, and the intermediate appellate court affirmed on the ground that the action was expressly pre-empted by the FBSA. 312 Ill. App. 3d 1040, 729 N. E. 2d 45 (2000). Relying on our intervening decision in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U. S. 861 (2000), the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the appellate court's express pre-emption rationale, but affirmed on implied pre-emption grounds. 197 Ill. 2d 112, 757 N. E. 2d 75 (2001). The court's decision added to a split of authority on this precise issue arising from lawsuits against, among a few others, this particular respondent and its corporate subsidiaries.*fn3

We granted certiorari, 534 U. S. 1112 (2002), to decide whether the FBSA pre-empts state common-law claims of this character.*fn4 Because the pre-emption defense raises a threshold issue, we have no occasion to consider the merits of petitioner's claims, or even whether the claims are viable as a matter of Illinois law. We must, however, evaluate three distinct theories that may support the pre-emption defense: (1) that the 1971 Act expressly pre-empts common-law claims; (2) that the Coast Guard's decision not to regulate propeller guards pre-empts the claims; and (3) that the potential conflict between diverse state rules and the federal interest in a uniform system of regulation impliedly pre-empts such claims. Before considering each of these theories, we review the history of federal regulation in this area.

II.

The 1971 Act is the most recent and most comprehensive of the several statutes that Congress has enacted to improve the safe operation of recreational boats. A 1910 enactment required three classes of motorboats to carry certain lights, sound signals, life preservers, and fire extinguishers. Act of June 9, 1910, 36 Stat. 462. In 1918, Congress passed a law that required the numbering of motorboats over 16 feet long, Act of June 7, 1918, ch. 93, 40 Stat. 602, and in 1940, it reenacted the above requirements, provided a system of federal inspection, and authorized penalties for the reckless operation of motorboats, Act of Apr. 25, 1940, ch. 155, 54 Stat. 163. In 1958, Congress enacted additional numbering requirements to be administered by the States and directed the States to compile and transmit boating accident statistics to the Secretary of the Treasury. Federal Boating Act of 1958, 72 Stat. 1754. Section 9 of the 1958 Act expressed a policy of encouraging uniformity of boating laws insofar as practicable.

The accident statistics compiled by the States presumably were instrumental in persuading the 1971 Congress that additional federal legislation was necessary.*fn5 In its statement of purposes, the FBSA recites that it was enacted "to improve boating safety," to authorize "the establishment of national construction and performance standards for boats and associated equipment," and to encourage greater "uniformity of boating laws and regulations as among the several States and the Federal Government." Pub. L. 92-75, §2, 85 Stat. 213-214. Three of the provisions implementing these goals are particularly relevant to this case.

Section 5 of the FBSA, as amended and codified in 46 U. S. C. §4302, authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations establishing "minimum safety standards for recreational vessels and associated equipment," and requiring the installation or use of such equipment.*fn6 The Secretary has delegated this authority to the Coast Guard. See 49 CFR §1.46(n)(1) (1997). Before exercising that authority, the Coast Guard must consider certain factors, such as the extent to which the proposed regulation will contribute to boating safety, and must consult with a special National Boating Safety Advisory Council appointed pursuant to §33 of the Act, 46 U. S. C. §13110.*fn7 The Advisory Council consists of 21 members, 7 representatives from each of three different groups: (1) "State officials responsible for State boating safety programs," (2) boat and equipment manufacturers, and (3) ...


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