Pontoon boat door hinges may sever people's fingers

By Andy Wise - bio | email

BARTLETT, TN (WMC-TV) - His parents initially thought it was a freak accident.

A terrifying freak accident.

But the millisecond it took to sever Bryce Hughes's pinky finger was actually six years in the making, according to recall records and lawsuits related to boat manufacturer Bentley Industries, LLC, of South Carolina.

July 4, the 9-year-old boy was celebrating the holiday with his parents, grandparents and cousins aboard his grandfather Lloyd McLeod's 2007 Bentley 203 Cruise pontoon boat on Sardis Lake in Mississippi.

When Bryce moved forward to jump from the boat, his left pinky finger slid down the length of the railing, passed a ball guard on the gate and lodged into the pinch-point of the hinge.

Parents Samuel and Mandy Hughes said they won't forget the sound of Bryce's screams as the force of his jump and the weight of his body ripped his finger off at the socket.

"It was bleeding a lot," said Bryce. "It was very painful."

"Never in a million years would you think a door hinge -- like a house door hinge - would pinch a child's finger off," said McLeod.

"It was the worst feeling I've ever had," said Mandy Hughes, a nurse at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. "I couldn't understand how that would have happened. I thought this was just some kind of freak accident."

It wasn't.

Gainesville, FL, product liability attorney Thomas L. Robinson told the Action News 5 Investigators as many as 150 people have suffered maimed or severed fingers in the pinch-point of Bentley pontoon boats' railings and gates.

Columbia, SC, product liability attorney John Kassel said he's documented 25 incidents of pinch-point injuries in Bentley boats and settled a half-dozen lawsuits against Steve Deese, Bentley's owner.

"This is a hazard recognized by the industry, but totally unknown to the users of the boats," said Kassel.

In 2004, Bentley's warranty department issued a recall letter to its dealers. The letter warns of a "safety risk" of "...a person's finger(s) to lodge between the points where a railing and gates meet on all of our models."

The letter was sent along with a kit that included ball-shaped guards to install on the gates.

"The ball guard doesn't work," Kassel said.

Inspecting the ball guard on McLeod's boat, the Action News 5 Investigators could see how the guard blocks the pinch-point area when the gate is closed.

But when it's open, like it was for Bryce, someone's pinky finger can slip easily around the ball guard into the pinch-point.

"They guarded it with something totally ineffective to do the job, never tested it to see if it would work," Kassel said.

In 2002 -- two years before the Bentley recall -- boat manufacturer Bennington of Elkhart, IN, issued a safety recall for the same defect on its pontoon gates and railings. The difference is Bennington recommend wedge guards that fill the pinch-point whether the gate is open or closed.

"As you open the gate, it still stays tight up in the top corner so there is no allowance for fingers or anything to actually get caught," said Eric Counce of Counce Marine in Memphis as he demonstrated the wedge guard on his boats.

But Kassel said Bentley Industries dismissed the wedge guard and opted instead for the ball guard in 2004, only to change to the wedge guard in January 2007 on its new models as incidents of injuries began to pile up.

"When we learned that this has happened to a lot of other people -- the exact same thing -- and that they knew about this type of problem, you begin to get somewhat angry," said Mandy Hughes.  "Because you know what your child is going through and what he is going to have to deal with for the rest of his life."

McLeod's Bentley boat was obtained by Power Boats, Inc., of Hot Springs, AR, directly from Bentley in August 2006, according to a purchase order. The dealership's business manager, Bill Marsh, said the boat came equipped with the ball guards.

"As far as the safety recall, I knew there was a ball on the doors, but that's about it," Marsh said in a phone interview.

Marsh sold the boat to McLeod a year later:  August 2007. That was eight months after Kassel said Bentley adopted the wedge guard as a safer alternative.

Marsh said his dealership stopped selling Bentley boats in 2008. "I don't really want to comment on why we stopped selling them," he said. "You start talking lawsuits and somebody getting hurt, you can talk to our attorney."

Deese did not return two messages left at his South Carolina offices.

John T. Lay, Deese's attorney, returned late Monday from a trip out of the country and said he was not in a position yet to comment for this story.

Bryce is making the best of his injury. His mom said surgeons at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center could not re-attach his pinky because it was severed too closely to the socket.

"You just want someone to answer for it," Mandy Hughes said. "You want someone to fix it to where this doesn't happen to anyone else."

Always check a product's recall history before you buy. Check with the product's manufacturer website or headquarters first to see if its issued any voluntary recalls on that specific model.

Then go to www.recalls.gov as your starting point to link to all of the main recall databases.

Check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's recall database for any government-sanctioned recall:  www.cpsc.gov.

For auto or motorcycle recalls, check with their respective manufacturers first, then check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's recall database at http://www.nhtsa.gov/ or www.safercar.gov.

For boat and boat accessory recalls, browse the U.S. Coast Guard's database at http://www.uscgboating.org/.

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