Jet ski crashes into boat that suddenly turns in front of it. $21.7 million product liability and negligence. Los Angeles County.


Drunk grandfather towing grandkids in raft suddenly turns in front of jet ski on Colorado River near Blythe.  Jet ski passenger suffers brain damage.  Jet ski manufacturer sued for product liability.

The Case

  • Case Name: Fabiola Esparza v. Polaris Industries Inc., Douglas Lane
  • Court and Case Number: Los Angeles Superior Court / BC 429211 (consolidated with BC 429478)
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Tuesday, July 23, 2013
  • Date Action was Filed: Tuesday, January 05, 2010
  • Type of Case: Boating Accident, Products Liability
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. J. Stephen Czuleger
  • Plaintiffs:
    Fabiola Esparza, 15-year-old high school student.
  • Defendants:
    Douglas Lane
    Polaris Industries Inc.
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $21,726,230
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    After Prop. 51, the total net award was $11,086,230.88 against Polaris and $15,566,230.88 against Lane.

  • Contributory/Comparative Negligence: 56% Douglas Lane; 20% Andrew Gutierrez; 24% Polaris
  • Economic Damages:

    Past medical: $744,394.88
    Future medical: $5,481,836

    Past loss of earnings: -0-
    Future loss of earnings: $1,500,000

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    Past: $500,000
    Future: $13,500,000

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 20 days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 6 days
  • Jury Polls: 11-1 on causation and defect. 9-3 that Polaris was not negligent in designing the 2001 Virage. 10-2 that Polaris was not negligent in failing to retrofit the Virage. 12-0 that Lane was negligent. 10-2 that Gutierrez was reckless.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:
    Grassini, Wrinkle & Johnson by Lawrence P. Grassini, Lars C. Johnson and Roland Wrinkle, Woodland HIlls.
  • Attorney for the Defendant:
    Bowman and Brooke, LLP by Paul G. Cereghini, Jeffrey C. Warren, Phoenix, AZ (for Polaris).
    Bowman and Brooke, LLP by Susan V. Vargas, Marion V. Mauch, Gardena (for Polaris).
    Calendo, Puckett, Sheedy & DiCorrado, LLP by Christopher M. Sheedy, Glendale (for Douglas Lane).

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Experts:
    Richard D. Catalano, M.D., ER medicine, Loma Linda.
    Lester Zackler, M.D., neuropsychiatry, Sherman Oaks.
    Sharon K. Kawai, M.D., rehabilitation medicine, Fullerton.
  • Plaintiff's Technical Experts:
    Nita Boles, regulatory process, Plano, TX.
    Edward W. Karnes, Ph.D., CHFP, human factors, Morrison, CO.
    Christopher D. Barry, PE, marine architecture, Edgewater, MD.
    Ron Simner, regulatory process, Saratoga.
    William H. Dobson, Jr., CMI, LPI, accident reconstruction, Mandeville, LA.
    Ramesh J. Kar, PhD, PE, FASM, BCFE, FACFE, materials science, Anaheim.
    Wilson Carlyle Hayes, Ph.D., biomechanics, Corvallis, OR.
    Bernard F. Pettingill, Jr., Ph.D.., medical economist, Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
  • Defendant's Technical Experts:
    Kevin Breen, PE, jet ski expert, Fort Myers, FL. (For Defendant Polaris Industries Inc.)
    Scott H. Evans, former Coast Guard captain, East Lyme, CT. (For Defendant Polaris Industries Inc.)
    Elizabeth H. Raphael, M.D., biomechanics, Palo Alto. (For Defendant Polaris Industries Inc.)
    Robert K. Taylor, MS, PE, accident reconstruction, Novi, MI. (For Defendant Polaris Industries Inc.)
    Nicholas J. Carpenter, Ph.D., accident reconstruction, Laguna Niguel. (For Defendant Douglas Lane)

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    On July 4, 2008, plaintiff was riding as a passenger on a Polaris
    Virage jet ski or personal watercraft (PWC) on the Colorado River, operated by then-17-year-old Andrew Gutierrez, when it collided with a 2004 Sea-Doo Utopia jet boat being operated by Douglas Lane, who was towing his three grandchildren on an inflatable raft. Lane had a blood alcohol content of 0.224% (three times over the legal limit) and pled guilty to three felonies for causing the accident and injury to the PWC riders.

    Witnesses testified that Gutierrez was speeding, doing figure eights and jumping waves when the river was extremely crowded. Lane suddenly turned in front of Gutierrez. One witness testified that he saw the Utopia turn suddenly and the crash was "instantaneous."

    Gutierrez was unable to steer away from the oncoming boat once he released his throttle. Defendant boat driver, Douglas Lane and his son/passenger Steven Lane both testified that Gutierrez was turning the handlebars but that the direction of the PWC did not change. There was also expert testimony that the inbound speed of the PWC versus the impact speed was hugely different, suggesting that Gutierrez had released the throttle (during which time he would not be able to steer away).

    The Riverside County Sheriff's Department concluded that Lane and Gutierrez were the sole causes of the accident for violating the rules of navigation and further determined that off-throttle steering played no role in the accident.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That Defendant Lane was negligent for operating his boat while
    having a blood alcohol level over three times the legal limit and for turning in front of the PWC.

    Further, that Polaris was negligent in its design of the Virage and negligent in failing to retrofit the Virage with an off-throttle steering (OTS) device (thus,it would lose its ability to steer when an inexperienced operator would let off of the throttle in an emergency).

    That the PWC should have had retractable rudders, a brake (reverse bucket) or a throttle reapplication device.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Defendant Lane contended that Gutierrez and Polaris, not he, caused the accident.  Lane contended that Gutierrez appeared to be heading directly at the towable raft that his grandchildren were riding in, and that he defensively turned his boat in front of the PWC to protect the grandchildren.

    Defendant Polaris contended that the accident was caused by the negligence of Lane and recklessness of Gutierrez; that the Virage was a safe, well-designed watercraft; that the U.S. Coast Guard made a finding that PWCs without OTS were not defective; that OTS devices don't work and don't help prevent accidents; that the manual and on-board warnings tell the operator that they need thrust to steer; that none of the OTS devices plaintiff talked about were feasible for use on the Virage when it was manufactured; that given the speed of the PWC and how suddenly and unexpectedly Lane turned in front of it, the crash was unavoidable and no OTS would have made any difference; and that the 2001 Virage performed better off-throttle than competitors' models with OTS.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    Patella, elbow, rib, sacral and hip fractures and traumatic brain (frontal lobe) injury.

    Plaintiff will require ongoing medical treatment including consultations with a neurologist and psychologist/psychiatrist, physical and occupational therapy.

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: None.
  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: There was a confidential offer by Defendant Polaris.