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Court Ruless for Pleasure Boat Owner in Lake Michigan Accident

June 25, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today gave pleasure boat owners additional protection from costly damage suits in boating accidents.

The court unanimously ruled in favor of Everett Sisson, owner of a yacht destroyed in a fire while docked at an Indiana marina on Lake Michigan.

The accident occurred on Sept. 24, 1985, when a fire broke out aboard Sisson’s 56-foot yacht the Ultorian and caused extensive damage to the Washington Park Marina in Michigan City, Ind., and other boats docked there.

The fire was believed to have been caused by a defective washer and dryer aboard the yacht.

The owners of the marina and other craft sued for more than $275,000.

Sisson, whose boat was valued at about $600,000 before the fire, said he should be required to pay the others no more than $800 - the Ultorian’s value after the fire.

He relied on federal maritime and admiralty laws that protect ship owners from big court awards in lawsuits.

But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year said the liability limits do not apply when the accident is caused by a pleasure boat moored at a recreational marina.

The Supreme Court disagreed today with the appeals court.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, said the damage limits apply when a potential hazard to maritime commerce arises out of an activity that bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

The fact that the actual damage to maritime commerce was minimal since no commercial vessels were docked in the marina does not remove the protection of federal law for Sisson, Marshall said.

The high court ordered further lower court hearings to determine how much Sisson should pay.

The case is Sisson vs. Ruby, 88-2041.

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