Boatland of Houston, Inc. v. Bailey
609 S.W.2d 743 (Tex. 1980)

Facts:

  • Samuel Bailey was killed in a boating accident in May of 1973.
  • The boat had struck a partially submerged tree stump, and Bailey was thrown into the water. With its motor still running, the boat turned sharply and circled back toward the stump. Bailey was killed by the propeller, but it is unclear whether he was struck when first thrown out or after the boat circled back toward him.
  • Bailey’s wife and children sought damages under a strict liability theory from the boat’s seller, Boatland.
  • At trial, they urged several reasons why the boat was defectively designed, one being the absence of a “kill switch.”
    • This would have caused the boat’s motor to automatically shut off when Bailey fell out.

History:

  • The trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment based on the jury’s failure to find that the boat was defective.
  • The court of civil appeals, with one justice dissenting, reversed.

Issue:
The primary dispute concerning the feasibility of an alternative design for Bailey’s boat was the “state of the art” when the boat was sold.

  • I.e., Did D introduce sufficient evidence that there wasn’t a safer alternative available at the time?

Holding:
Yes. Case reversed.

Reasoning:

  • The state of the art with respect to a particular product refers to the technological environment at the time of its manufacture.
  • When a plaintiff introduces evidence that a safer alternative was feasible because it was used, the defendant may then introduce contradictory evidence that it was not used.
  • Here, the boat was assembled and sold around March of 1973. Boatland introduced evidence that the inventor of the “Quick Kill” began developing it in November of 1972 and applied for a patent in January of 1973. When he obtained the patent in 1974, he kept the idea to himself and had not started to manufacture them.
  • Thus, the trial court jury had sufficient basis to conclude that the boat was not defectively designed.
  • This was a case of timing.

Dissent:

  • This is an industry custom case.
  • The kill switch was unavailable, but there is no dispute that a circuit breaker could have easily and cheaply been incorporated into the boat.

Rule: Whether a product was defectively designed must be judged against the technological context existing at time of its manufacture – i.e., state of the art.

This is the majority rule.