It’s been a decade since the accident, but Niki Bell lives with the aftermath — and anger — every day.
“I can't see out of my left eye. I can’t taste. I can't smell. I can't drive,” she said. “They disrupted my life. I mean, they changed my life.”
The Paradise, California, woman was 23 when she went wakeboarding with a bunch of college friends. Several crowded the front of the boat. When the driver turned to pick up a fallen wakeboarder, the bow dipped below the water. Bell was swept overboard, pulled under the boat. The propeller clawed into her head over and over.
Said her mom, Cindy Bell, “You're praying for your child to just live when you're told they’re not going to survive.”
A jury found the boat maker — MasterCraft — 80 percent responsible for the accident, and the driver 20 percent. Bell’s lawyer argued the 24-foot boat’s design made it easier to swamp — or fill with water. The jury awarded Bell $30-million dollars. MasterCraft appealed, but eventually settled without admitting liability.
“The boat was not defective in design or manufacture…" and “met or exceeded all standards promulgated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Boat and Yacht Council,” they said in a statement
Bell’s attorney argued that MasterCraft had not performed adequate testing of the boat and had not warned users about how passenger weight should be distributed.
Consumer safety expert Sean Kane said there is little oversight of the industry.
“We have an industry that sells a product that most consumers would think is highly regulated and there’s safety testing and there’s federal regulation governing the safety of these products," Kane said. "In fact, the federal regulations are very scant.”
The Coast Guard is the agency to set federal regulations — dealing largely with safety equipment — but most boating standards are set by the nonprofit American Boat and Yacht Council, or ABYC. Boat manufacturers pay a small fee to belong and be certified. Adhering to the council’s safety standards is voluntary.
“If the industry sets their own standards, are they really pushing the envelope?” questioned Kane. “Are they ensuring that the safety of their users are first and foremost? Or is it really about what’s easiest and what’s the bottom line?”
The ABYC insists that it is made more nimble and not bogged down by the slow gears of federal regulation.
“We can react so quickly to changes in manufacturing, to advances in technology, to safety issues we see come up," ABYC President John Aedy said. "We can standardize those so quickly, where the government just can’t catch up that quickly.”
But the family of Ryan Batchelder says boat makers are not acting quickly enough.
The 7-year-old Florida boy was killed in 2014 when — according to a recently filed civil suit — the rented Malibu boat he was riding in crossed the wake. The bow dipped under water and he was washed overboard. His body got tangled in the propeller. He suffered massive blood loss and drowned.
His mother Meg Batchelder said, “Ryan was just a joy. He was so smart and so funny. He was just the best kid any parent could ever hope for.”
The Batchelders are suing Malibu, claiming the design — the way it puts seats in the front of the boat — was flawed. In videotaped depositions, Malibu executives said adding the extra weight to the front of the boat was a concern and they tested it thoroughly, but could not produce documents to prove testing was done.
“There’s no one that requires that they do other than the fear of a lawsuit or the fear of losing a customer," Aedy said.
Malibu maintains that the boat was safe. They said the boat was operated by the original owner for 14 years and used by a half dozen other families — before and after Ryan’s accident — without incident.
In a statement, Malibu said: “After the accident the Georgia Department of Natural Resources investigated the boat and the accident... the boat was deemed safe and returned.”
“It happens a lot. A lot more than it should," said Jay Deal, a safety instructor with New England Maritime, about the risk of going overboard riding in or on the bow. He thinks it should be mandatory for every recreational boater to take a basic safety course to operate in Massachusetts, but it’s not.
“An operator has to know the characteristics of his or her boat — how it handles in different conditions," he said. "The more information people have, the safer they’re going to be.”
The ABYC said it is now considering adding standards that would require labels on the bow of boats, showing operators how much weight can be up front. But again, those standards are voluntary.