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Illinois Courts Deferential to a Fault?

01 Mar 2003

Mrs. Jeanne Sprietsma fell out of a motorboat and was killed when she was hit by the propeller of the outboard motor. Her husband sued Mercury Marine, alleging that the motor should have had a propeller guard. The defendant argued that since the Coast Guard, which has authority to issue safety regulations under the Federal Boat Safety Act, had decided against requiring such guards, federal law thus had impliedly preempted common law claims that boats without propeller guards are unreasonably dangerous. Every single Illinois state court to consider the case circuit, appellate, and supreme agreed with the defendant. But now a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has changed all that, giving less deference to the federal regulation than even the state courts had. Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 154 L.Ed.2d 466, 123 S.Ct. 518, 2002 U.S. LEXIS 9067 (Dec. 3, 2002). Drawing a distinction between express preemption and implied preemption, the court held the Coast Guard regulation did not expressly preempt state common law. That left two categories of implied preemption: field preemption (where Congress indicates an intent to exclusively occupy a field of regulation), and actual conflict preemption (where a federal regulation directly conflicts with state law). Neither is found here, so Mr. Sprietsma may get his day in court after all. Practice tip: Never give up.


Contact:   Michael Freeborn

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