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State Law Can Apply in Jet Ski Lawsuit, Supreme Court Says

January 9, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today that state _ not federal law _ can apply to a Philadelphia couple’s lawsuit against a jet ski manufacturer over their daughter’s accidental death in Puerto Rico.

The court said Natalie Calhoun’s parents do not have to pursue their wrongful-death lawsuit against Yamaha Motor Corp. in federal court, but can do so in state court where more generous remedies are available under Pennsylvania law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court that such lawsuits may be tried under state law unless the deceased person was in some way engaged in commercial maritime activities, such as a seaman or longshore worker.

A 1970 Supreme Court ruling that created a federal maritime action for wrongful death does not apply to such cases as Natalie Calhoun’s death, Ginsburg said.

The 12-year-old girl was vacationing with family friends in Puerto Rico when the rented jet ski she was driving slammed into a boat anchored not far from a resort hotel.

Natalie’s parents, Lucien and Robin Calhoun, sued Yamaha in federal court but their lawsuit was based on state law. Such a procedure is allowed when a plaintiff and defendant are not residents of the same state.

The Calhouns alleged that the Yamaha jet ski had been defectively designed or made.

Yamaha contended that state-law remedies were not available because Natalie had died on navigable waters _ requiring that federal maritime law control the lawsuit’s outcome.

A federal trial judge agreed with Yamaha, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state law could apply. Today’s decision upheld the appeals court ruling.

Ginsburg rejected Yamaha’s argument that the court’s 1970 decision ``ousted all previously available state remedies.″

``We preserve the application of state statutes to deaths within territorial waters,″ Ginsburg said for cases involving ``nonseafarers.″

The case is Yamaha Motor Corp. vs. Calhoun, 94-1387.

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