Sprietsman v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51; 123 S. Ct. 518; 154 L. Ed. 2d 466 (2002)
Facts—Sprietsman’s wife was killed in a boating accident on a lake between Tennessee and Kentucky. He sued Mercury Marine, the manufacturer of the outboard motor on the boat, for not installing a propeller guard. The trial and intermediate courts found that the Federal Boat Safety Act (FBSA) of 1971 specifically prohibited such actions. The state supreme court affirmed on the basis that such preemption was implied.
Question—Did the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 preempt suits against propeller manufacturers under state tort law?
Reasons—J. Stevens (9–0). Congress adopted the FBSA to regulate the safety of recreational boats by establishing minimum standards. In enacting the law, Congress specified that “Compliance with this chapter or standards, regulations, or orders prescribed under this chapter does not relieve a person from liability at common law or under State law,” a position the secretary of transportation had reaffirmed. After extensive study, the Coast Guard decided not to require propeller guards, but it did not prohibit states from adopting such requirements. Sometimes federal legislation manifests an intent to occupy a field completely or parties find it impossible to meet both state and federal laws, but neither situations applies here. The Transportation Department’s decision not to require propellers “left the law applicable to propeller guards exactly the same as it had been before the subcommittee began its investigation.” Neither the solicitor general who argued the case before the Supreme Court nor the Coast Guard thought that federal law was designed to preempt state laws. Uniformity of regulation can be important, but this consideration is not “unyielding.” In this case, “absent a contrary decision by the Coast Guard, the concern with uniformity does not justify the displacement of state common-law remedies that compensate accident victims and their families.”