Preemption Prevails In Watercraft Case Under Federal Boat Safety Act

For vehicle manufacturers that find themselves in state court facing product liability claims over safety mechanisms, federal preemption is frequently examined as an affirmative defense. Watercraft manufacturers, in particular, look to the Federal Boat Safety Act, which includes a mechanism for granting exemptions to boat manufacturers for vessels that, while they cannot comply with Coast Guard safety standards because of their design or construction, do not adversely affect boating safety.

State courts have handed down varied decisions on the question of preemption in watercraft product liability cases, but a recent decision out of Washington deserves a closer look for watercraft manufacturers asserting preemption.


The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that preemption occurs (1) "when Congress, in enacting a federal statute, expresses a clear intent to pre-empt state law," (2) "when there is outright or actual conflict between federal and state law," (3) "where compliance with both federal and state law is in effect physically impossible," (4) "where there is implicit in federal law a barrier to state regulation," (5) "where Congress has legislated comprehensively, thus occupying an entire field of regulation and leaving no room for the States to supplement federal law," and (6) "where the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full objectives of Congress." La. Pub. Serv. Comm'n v. F.C.C., 476 U.S. 355, 368-69 (1986). Additionally, "[preemption] may result not only from action taken by Congress itself; a federal agency within the scope of its congressionally delegated authority may pre-empt state regulation." Id. at 369.

One such noteworthy statute is the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, 46 U.S.C. §§ 4301-4311 ("FBSA"), considered "the ... most comprehensive" federal enactment intended to "improve the safe operation of recreational boats" on waters of the United States. See Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51, 56 (2002). The FBSA applies to all "recreational vessels and associated equipment[,]" and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to "establish[ ] minimal safety standards" for such vessels and equipment. See 46 U.S.C. §§ 4301(a), 4302(a)(1). The Secretary has delegated this regulatory authority to the United States Coast Guard ("USCG"), 49 C.F.R. § 1.46(n)(1), which is authorized to promulgate boating regulations subject to the statutory requirements that it consider...

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