Georgia jury awards $200M to family of child killed in boat accident

A northeast Georgia jury awarded $200 million to a Florida family whose 7-year-old son was killed in a 2014 boating accident on Lake Burton.

On Saturday, a Rabun County Superior Court jury found that Malibu Boats West Inc. and Malibu Boats LLC failed to warn users of a safety hazard in one of its models of water-skiing boats. It also found that Dennis Ficarra of Seneca, South Carolina, was negligent in driving the boat.

Ryan Batchelder, of Lake Worth, Florida, was killed when his family’s rented boat took on water on Lake Burton in Rabun County in July 2014. Batchelder later collided with the boat’s spinning propeller.

The Batchelder family filed a civil product liability lawsuit against Malibu in May 2016.

Drew Ashby, a Marietta-based attorney for the family, said the state court jury wanted to send a message to Malibu and the boating industry that they must take safety issues more seriously.

The jury imposed “meaningful punitive damages in order to get the attention of Malibu, which badly needs change when it comes to user safety,” he said.

Bobby Shannon, an Atlanta attorney for Malibu, said the company is reviewing the case and has not decided whether to appeal.

The boat rented by the Batchelder family had been used for 14 years by its previous owner and never had any safety issues, Shannon said. The family used the boat for three days before Ficarra arrived and had no safety issues. Ficarra’s operation of the boat caused the accident, he said.

The jury applied $140 million of its award to Malibu and $60 million to Ficarra, who was driving the boat at the time of the accident. However, Ficarra was not a defendant and the $60 million can’t be collected from him, Ashby said.

Awards in product liability cases are typically lower than $200 million. In 2019, a California jury awarded $80 million to a man who claimed the weed killer Roundup caused his cancer.

Large awards are often reduced. In 2002, a Los Angeles jury awarded $28 billion against Philip Morris in a tobacco damages case. After years of appeals, the amount was reduced to $28 million.