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Sprietsma v. Mecury Marine

August 16, 2001

REX R. SPRIETSMA, ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF JEANNE SPRIETSMA, DECEASED, APPELLANT
v.
MERCURY MARINE, A DIVISION OF BRUNSWICK CORPORATION, APPELLEE



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Garman

UNPUBLISHED

Docket No. 89492-Agenda 17-March 2001.

 The issue in this case is whether the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 (FBSA) (46 U.S.C. §4301 et seq. (1994)) preempts state common law causes of action based on the manufacturer's failure to install propeller guards on boat engines. In July 1995, while boating in Tennessee, plaintiff's decedent, Jeanne Sprietsma, fell from a motor boat and was struck by the motor's propeller blades. As a result, she suffered serious injuries that resulted in her death. The boat was equipped with a 115-horsepower outboard motor, which did not contain a propeller guard. The motor was designed, manufactured, and sold by Mercury Marine.

The decedent's husband, Rex Sprietsma, filed a wrongful-death action against, among others, Mercury Marine, seeking to recover damages for decedent's pain and suffering along with the pecuniary loss suffered by himself and his son. Mercury Marine filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 1998)) on the grounds that Sprietsma's claims were expressly preempted by the language of the FBSA's preemption clause and were also impliedly preempted. The circuit court of Cook County granted Mercury Marine's motion to dismiss, finding the claims to be impliedly preempted. The appellate court affirmed, holding that the common law claims for failure to install propeller guards were expressly preempted. 312 Ill. App. 3d 1040. We granted Sprietsma's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 315 (177 Ill. 2d R. 315). As this case is an appeal from a section 2-619 motion to dismiss, our review is de novo. Carver v. Nall, 186 Ill. 2d 554, 557 (1999).

A. The Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 and the Coast Guard's Decision Regarding Propeller Guards

Congress enacted the FBSA "to improve boating safety by requiring manufacturers to provide safer boats and boating equipment to the public through compliance with safety standards to be promulgated by the Secretary of the Department in which the Coast Guard is operating-presently the Secretary of Transportation." S. Rep. No. 92-248 (1971), reprinted in 1971 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1333. Due to an increase in the number of boat-related accidents and fatalities, Congress enacted the FBSA to establish "a coordinated national boating safety program." S. Rep. No. 92-248 (1971), reprinted in 1971 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1331, 1334-35. To implement this goal, the FBSA authorized the Secretary of Transportation (Secretary) to prescribe regulations necessary to establish minimum safety standards for recreational boats. 46 U.S.C. §4302(a) (1994). The Secretary may delegate regulatory functions to an organization or agency under his supervision (46 U.S.C. §4303(a) (1994)) and, in fact, has delegated the regulatory authority to the Commandant of the United States Coast Guard (49 C.F.R. §1.46(n)(1) (1999)). Before issuing a regulation, the Coast Guard must consult with the National Boating Safety Advisory Council (Advisory Council) to consider the need for a regulation and the extent to which the regulations will contribute to recreational boating safety. 46 U.S.C. §4302(c)(1) through (c)(4) (1994).

In 1988, the Coast Guard considered whether to require manufacturers to install propeller guards on their boat motors. The Coast Guard directed the Advisory Council to review the available data on prevention of propeller-strike accidents and to assess the feasibility and potential safety advantages and disadvantages of propeller guards. The Advisory Council appointed a Propeller Guard Subcommittee (Subcommittee) to review and analyze the data and to consider whether the Coast Guard should move toward a federal propeller guard requirement. National Boating Safety Advisory Council, Report of the Propeller Guard Subcommittee, November 7, 1989, at Appendix A.

After studying the issue and conducting public hearings, the Subcommittee unanimously recommended that the "Coast Guard should take no regulatory action to require propeller guards." Report of the Propeller Guard Subcommittee, at 24. The Subcommittee made this recommendation after finding that propeller guards could create other safety concerns, including: (1) adversely affecting boat operations at speeds greater than 10 miles per hour; (2) increasing the chance of blunt force contact to a person in the water; and (3) creating a new hazard in that an arm or leg could be caught between the guard and the propeller blades. Report of the Propeller Guard Subcommittee, at 19-21.

The Subcommittee's report was presented to the Advisory Council, which accepted and adopted the recommendations. Minutes of the 44th Meeting of the National Boating Safety Advisory Council 19 (November 6-7, 1989). The report and recommendations were then sent to the Coast Guard, which adopted the Advisory Council's recommendations, including its recommendation that no regulatory action should be taken to require propeller guards because "[a]vailable propeller guard accident data [does] not support imposition of a regulation requiring propeller guards on motorboats." Letter from Robert T. Nelson, Rear Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard, Chief, Office of Navigation Safety and Waterway Services, to A. Newell Garden, Chairman, National Boating Safety Advisory Council (February 1, 1990).

B. Federal Preemption

Pursuant to the supremacy clause of article VI of the United States Constitution, the laws of the United States "shall be the supreme Law of the Land *** any thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. Const., art. VI, cl. 2. Thus, state law is without effect if it conflicts with federal law. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d 407, 422, 112 S. Ct. 2608, 2617 (1992). Consideration of issues arising under the supremacy clause begins with the assumption that the historic state police powers are not to be superseded by federal law unless that is the clear and manifest purpose of Congress. Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 422, 112 S. Ct. at 2617. Thus, the ultimate question in any preemption analysis is to determine the intent of Congress. Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 422, 112 S. Ct. at 2617.

Federal law can preempt state law under the supremacy clause in three circumstances: (1) where Congress has expressly preempted state action (express preemption); (2) where Congress has implemented a comprehensive regulatory scheme in an area, thus removing the entire field from state realm (implied field preemption); or (3) where state action actually conflicts with federal law (implied conflict preemption). Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 422-23, 112 S. Ct. at 2617; English v. General Electric Co., 496 U.S. 72, 78-79, 110 L. Ed. 2d 65, 74, 110 S. Ct. 2270, 2275 (1990). Our focus in this case will deal with express and implied conflict preemption.

The parties dispute whether our analysis should begin with a presumption that federal law does not preempt Sprietsma's common law tort claims against Mercury Marine. Sprietsma contends that there is a strong presumption against preemption here because federal preemption would displace state police powers that protect the health and safety of its citizens. Conversely, Mercury Marine argues that this case does not involve the historic police powers of the state but derives from federal maritime jurisdiction.

The United States Supreme Court has stated that "an `assumption' of nonpre-emption is not triggered when the State regulates in an area where there has been a history of significant federal presence." United States v. Locke, 529 U.S. 89, 108, 146 L. Ed. 2d 69, 88, 120 S. Ct. 1135, 1147 (2000). However, an assumption of nonpreemption is triggered when the state regulates health and safety matters which have traditionally come within the jurisdiction of the state through its police powers. Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470, 474, 135 L. Ed. 2d 700, 709, 116 S. Ct. 2240, 2245 (1996). We recognize that Sprietsma's claim that Mercury Marine designed a defective motor by failing to install a propeller guard relates to health and safety concerns. However, the claim also encompasses maritime activity, which is traditionally within the realm of federal regulation. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215, 61 L. Ed. 1086, 1098, 37 S. Ct. 524, 528 (1917) ("Congress has paramount power to fix and determine the maritime law which shall prevail throughout the country"); Lady v. Neal Glaser Marine, Inc., 228 F.3d 598, 607 (5th Cir. 2000).

Section 4301(a) states that the FBSA and its regulations apply "to a recreational vessel and associated equipment carried in the vessel on waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and, for a vessel owned in the United States, on the high seas." 46 U.S.C. §4301(a) (1994). Furthermore, the FBSA's "[g]eneral jurisdictional applicability is to vessels within the historic federal maritime jurisdiction." S. Rep. No. 92-248 (1971), reprinted in 1971 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1333, 1338. In deciding whether the claims in this case relate to federal maritime activity, we note that the United States Supreme Court has held that a collision between two pleasure boats on navigable waters had a sufficient nexus to traditional maritime activity to come within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts. Foremost Insurance Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668, 674, 73 L. Ed. 2d 300, 306, 102 S. Ct. 2654, 2658 (1982). Thus, Sprietsma's claims bear upon an area historically regulated by the federal government. When "state laws *** bear upon national and international maritime commerce, *** there is no beginning assumption that concurrent regulation by the State is a valid exercise of its police powers." Locke, 529 U.S. at 108, 146 L. Ed. 2d at 88-89, 120 S. Ct. at 1148. Although Sprietsma's claims bear upon state and federal concerns, we believe the federal concerns predominate in this case. Therefore, in deciding whether Sprietsma's claims are preempted by the FBSA, we will not apply a presumption against preemption.

In addition, as we address the preemption issue, we will look to the decisions of federal district and circuit courts. Although we have stated in the past that the decisions of federal courts interpreting a federal statute are controlling on Illinois courts (see Busch v. Graphic Color Corp., 169 Ill. 2d 325, 335 (1996)), this overstates the degree of deference this court must pay to federal decisions. Thus, in Wilson v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 187 Ill. 2d 369, 381 (1999), we elected to follow the precedent of the Seventh Circuit with regard to its interpretation of the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. §51 et seq. (1994)), because we found the Seventh Circuit analysis to be "reasonable and logical." More recently, however, we declined to follow Seventh Circuit precedent in a case involving a preemption issue under FELA when there was a split of authority among the federal circuits and we believed the Seventh Circuit case was wrongly decided. See Weiland v. Tectronics Pacing Systems, Inc., 188 Ill. 2d 415, 423 (1999).

Nevertheless, as we have repeatedly recognized, uniformity of decision is an important consideration when state courts interpret federal statutes. See Weiland, 188 Ill. 2d at 422; Wilson, 187 Ill. 2d at 383; Busch, 169 Ill. 2d at 335. Uniformity is particularly important where, as here, the federal statute relates to a product that is inherently mobile and thus likely to move from state to state. Indeed, this suit was brought to recover damages in an Illinois court, under Illinois law, for a death that took place in Tennessee. Boats also frequently navigate in lakes or rivers that mark the boundary between two states. Thus, it is essential that a uniform body of law be developed. In the absence of a decision of the United States Supreme Court, which would ...


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