Lawsuits filed by two families devastated by boating accidents reveal industry-wide practices that safety experts say put people in danger on the water.
Ryan Batchelder of Lake Worth, Florida, died in 2014 when the boat he was on at a lake in Georgia hit a wave and the 7-year-old was ejected.
In 2006, Niki Bell of Paradise, California, suffered a severe head injury when the boat she was on took on water and she was washed overboard and struck in the head by the propeller four times.
Their families believe defective designs and lack of oversight led to their tremendous tragedies, and they have sued the manufacturers.
The Batchelders’ lawsuit claiming negligence by Malibu Boats questions who designs the boats and tests them.
They say the 2000 Response LX the family rented three years ago had a defective design, which led to their son's death.
"I thought we were in a safe situation,” said Ryan’s mother, Meg. “Obviously there's inherent dangers in boating."
In a videotaped deposition obtained by News4, former CEO and founder of Malibu, Robert Alkema, who retired from the company in 2009, described how the company created the Response LX in 1996 by simply cutting a hole in the deck of another model and adding seats to the bow.
"We cut a hole in the deck and we tried it, tested it," he said.
Don Fountain, the Batchelders’ attorney, asked Alkema if adding weight to the front of the boat by adding seats to the bow was a concern they discussed.
“That was a primary concern, yeah,” Alkema said.
“OK, why was that a concern?” Fountain asked.
“Because there's weight, more weight in the front than when it was originally designed, yeah,” Alkema said.
Alkema testified no engineering adjustments in response to the concern.
“And what efforts were made to counteract or deal with that proposed concern?” Fountain asked.
“It was tested thoroughly,” Alkema said.
Malibu employees including Alkema took the Response LX on the water to test it.
“I did the testing,” Alkema said. “I had, I had one of those boats.”
Alkema testified that at that time, it wasn't Malibu's practice to follow any formal guidelines when testing boats. The only proof of testing?
“The evidence would be our, our experience, our recollection,” he said.
He testified he’s unaware if any test documents ever existed.
In a statement to News4, Malibu's attorney said the company's boats are designed and tested prior to sale to their customers, and the company has produced 50,000 boats since 1982.
"The Malibu LX Response that is the subject of the lawsuit was purchased and used by a family with children for 14 years before being sold to a Marina," the statement read. "In addition to the original family, six other families used the boat prior to the accident. In essence, the boat was used without incident for approximately 560 hours prior to the accident.
"The original owner maintained and used that boat on the same lake where the accident occurred for 14 years. The Marina who purchased the boat then rented the boat to several families before the accident without incident. After the accident, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources investigated the boat and the accident. After the investigation was completed the boat was deemed safe and returned. Subsequently, the boat was rented again on two occasions without incident. In fact, the Batchelders used the boat for three and half days before the accident happened."
While pouring through thousands of pages of depositions in Ryan's case, News4 came across Niki Bell’s lawsuit against a different manufacturer. The Bells’ lawsuit against MasterCraft also blames a defective design and inadequate testing.
“They disrupted my life,” Bell said.
In 2011, a jury found MasterCraft 80 percent at fault in that accident with the driver of the boat 20 percent responsible. Bell was awarded $30 million.
“What really horrified the jurors in our case was the fact that MasterCraft did zero engineering, no testing of the boat at all relative to the weight that they said was fine and the number of people, and nothing about the performance of the boat,” said Roger Dreyer, the Bells’ attorney.
MasterCraft appealed the verdict but ultimately settled the case without admitting liability. Mastercraft said it "did not make any specific changes in its products as a result of the case."
In a statement to News4, MasterCraft said in part, "The boat was not defective in design or manufacture" and the boat "met or exceeded all standards promulgated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Boat and Yacht Council."
Manufacturers testing their own boats is a standard and accepted practice, News4 learned. The government has very little involvement in how recreational boats are designed and tested.
The Coast Guard decline a request for an interview.
Most of the Coast Guard's authority when it comes to these boats revolves around safety equipment required on board and law enforcement.
“Why isn't the Coast Guard looking at this from a safety standpoint?” safety expert Sean Kane asks.
He said it's troubling how boats, unlike cars, are manufactured with very few regulations.
“A lot of it's very much by the seat of their pants,” he said.
“And because there's no federal oversight and because industry organizations don't have enough standards in place, either, and they're voluntary, you end up with safety problems like this,” he added.
There are some checks and balances when it comes to designing and testing the boats. Trade organizations set standards, and most manufacturers say they follow them, but safety experts warn those standards are voluntary.