Last month, the Court of Appeal for Louisiana’s Third Circuit affirmed a jury verdict of $125,000.00 in compensatory damages and $23,000,000.00 in punitive damages in favor of the plaintiff, Ron Warren, in a maritime products liability case.
The incident at the heart of the case took place over ten years ago. On May 7, 2005, Derek Hebert was riding in a small boat operated by David Vamvoras. They were traveling from Mr. Vamvoras’ home to the Lake Charles Country Club via a former channel of the Calcasieu River. During the trip, the boat’s steering system completely shut down, ejecting Hebert from the craft and into the path of the propeller. The propeller struck Hebert approximately nineteen times, killing him almost instantly. A subsequent investigation of the accident revealed that the loss of a relatively small amount of hydraulic fluid resulted in the craft’s total loss of steering. As a result, Warren filed suit for wrongful death and survival damages against numerous parties, including the manufacturer and designer of the boat’s steering system, Teleflex.
Warren alleged that Teleflex failed to warn boat owners and passengers of the potentially catastrophic danger caused by losing just a small amount of hydraulic fluid. At trial, evidence showed that Teleflex performed tests in 1989 and 2004 which revealed that the loss of only a few teaspoons of hydraulic fluid would result in the total failure of the steering system. Plaintiff further showed Teleflex had received thousands of complaints regarding hydraulic fluid loss, but Teleflex believed the problem occurred infrequently enough that a more specific warning was not justified. The jury disagreed and awarded Warren $23,000,000.00 in punitive damages.