A family in Florida and a family in California both changed instantly because of tragic boating accidents. Now they are pushing for change.
Meg Batchelder of Lake Worth, Florida, would give anything to introduce her little boy, Ryan, but three years ago, the 7-year-old died in a horrific boating incident – the family refuses to call his death an accident.
The family loved being on the water
“He loved being on the water,” Meg said. “His room is actually decorated in a nautical theme, ironically.”
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July 17, 2014, the family gathered along the shore of Lake Burton in Georgia.
“We were commenting earlier that day that it was like heaven there,” Meg said.
The last time she saw Ryan alive, he was climbing on board a 2000 Malibu Response LX with his brother, cousins and uncles.
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According to a police report, all four kids were sitting in the front of the boat, which was steered in a circle to create waves to “splash the kids in the bow.” When the boat hit one of the waves, the "bow took on a lot of water," and Ryan and his cousin were "ejected out of the vessel." The driver immediately put the vessel in reverse.
When they realized Ryan was missing, the driver "jumped in the water to look for Ryan and found him stuck in the propeller."
He died from his injuries.
His mom and dad watched the horrific scene from the shore.
“The first night you're just, you're just thinking it's impossible to survive and thinking how you're going to end it,” Meg said.
But over time, she knew she needed to find a purpose, to move forward and to give her little boy a legacy. His love for stuffed animals is the inspiration behind Little Hugs, a foundation that donates stuffed animals to children going through hardships.
“And it's my way of continuing my relationship with Ryan,” Meg said. “He was such a loving boy, and it's just my way of putting his love out into the world that he wasn't able to do in person.”
His tragic accident hits close to home for a California family.
In 2006, Niki Bell was close to graduating from college. The happy, playful 22-year-old from Paradise, California, was looking forward to a full life.
But while on a boat with her friends Niki's world came to a sudden stop. When the bow started to swamp, Niki tried to hang on, but she was washed overboard and hit by the propeller four times in the head.
Now 34, Niki is blind in one eye and has a severe brain injury from multiple skull fractures. A propeller from the boat struck her with such force, she lost a part of her frontal lobe.
“Well it just sucks because I can't see out of my left eye, I can't taste, I can't smell, I can't drive,” she said. “I'm 34 years old and I just want to drive.”
In 2011, a jury found MasterCraft primarily at fault for the accident. The driver of the boat was found 20 percent responsible.
The Bells' complaint argued the design of MasterCraft's X45 boat was defective and the company didn't adequately test it.
“You assume that a company that puts out a product, any company, is going to test their product before they put it out to their consumers,” said Cindy Bell, Niki’s mother.
The jury awarded Niki $30 million.
In a statement to News4, Mastercraft said in part, “The boat was not defective in design or manufacture. The accident which injured the plaintiffs in that case was unsafe operation of the boat."
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."
Ryan's parents have filed a lawsuit against Malibu, claiming the company manufactured a boat which "contains safety defect(s)” and "failed to adequately test its Malibu Response LX bow rider to ensure it performed safely."
In a statement to News4, Malibu said it is truly saddened by the tragic loss of a young child, however the company maintains the boat the Batchelders rented was used for 14 years with no problems. In fact, after the investigation was complete, the company said the boat was rented again on two occasions without incident.
Depositions have begun in Ryan’s case, and News4 obtained several of them. Malibu's current CEO, Jack Springer, testified safety is their No. 1 priority.
"In our design and in our manufacture, absolutely,” Springer said. “And I think our track record is just absolutely exemplary in the numbers of boats, people, hours that we have had without an incident."