Products Liability Law Daily Damages award against aircraft engine maker upheld in plane crash suit
Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Damages award against aircraft engine maker upheld in plane crash suit

By Susan Engstrom

In an action stemming from a plane crash that killed the pilot and two passengers, the manufacturer of the aircraft’s engine failed to convince a federal appellate panel to overturn a jury’s $2.8-million damages award against it. The 18-year statute of repose contained in the General Aviation Revitalization Act did not shield the manufacturer from liability, and there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the company’s defective cylinder assembly had caused the crash, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined in a non-precedential decision. The manufacturer’s objections to the trial court’s evidentiary rulings also failed, as did its assertion that the lower court had erred in submitting the plaintiffs’ failure to warn claim to the jury (Snider v. Sterling Airways, Inc., December 28, 2018, McKee, T.).

A single-engine Cessna aircraft crashed following a total engine failure as the plane was preparing to land, killing the pilot and his two passengers, both of whom were U.S. Forest Service employees who had been conducting an aerial deforestation survey. The flight was conducted pursuant to a charter contract between the Forest Service and the plane’s owner, Sterling Airways, Inc. The ill-fated aircraft had been manufactured in 1973 and was equipped with a Continental Motors, Inc. engine that had been last overhauled in 2004. The estates of the three decedents filed suits against Sterling and Continental, alleging claims for negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and/or strict liability on the part of the defendants in, among other things, the manufacturing, maintenance, and operation of the aircraft, its engine, and its component parts. Two of the suits settled prior to trial but the third—on behalf of one of the deceased Forest Service employees—went to trial.

Trial court proceedings. The jury returned a nearly $2.8-million verdict for the deceased man’s representatives and against Continental Motors only [see Products Liability Law Daily’s February 24, 2017 analysis]. Although the aircraft owner was found to have breached its contract with the Forest Service and to have been negligent, the jury determined that the owner’s negligence and contract breach were not actual causes of the accident. Thereafter, the trial court denied the engine maker’s motion for judgment as a matter of law [see Products Liability Law Daily’s June 30, 2017 analysis]. In a subsequent decision, the court denied Continental’s motion for a new trial, concluding that the evidence presented at trial was more than sufficient to support the jury’s conclusion that the accident had been caused by the inadequate hardness of an exhaust valve guide installed in one of the engine’s cylinders. In addition, the manufacturer’s objections to the court’s evidentiary rulings and jury instructions failed, as did the manufacturer’s assertion that the evidence at trial showed that the aircraft owner’s maintenance deficiencies were the cause of the accident [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 7, 2017 analysis]. Approximately one week after denying a new trial, the court granted almost $444,000 in delay damages favoring the deceased man’s survivors [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 11, 2017 analysis]. Continental appealed, raising four claims of error.

GARA statute of repose. Continental first argued that it was shielded from liability by the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), which bars lawsuits against the manufacturer of an aircraft or any "component, system, subassembly, or other part of the aircraft" if the manufacturer’s product failed more than 18 years after the product was delivered. GARA also provides that if a "new component, system, subassembly, or other part" replaces an existing part in the aircraft, the 18-year limitation period restarts on the day the replacement procedure is completed. If 18 years pass after the replacement date, then the manufacturer of the replacement part is protected from liability.

Here, Continental asserted that it did not manufacture the at-issue exhaust valve guide in the replacement cylinder assembly and, thus, it did not manufacture any part on the subject aircraft that was installed within 18 years of the crash. As the trial court had observed, however, although the cylinder assembly incorporated exhaust valve guides manufactured by a third party, the guides were designed by—and specifically manufactured for—Continental. Continental then tested the hardness of the guides and individually reamed each one to specifically fit a particular Continental cylinder assembly. According to the appellate panel, this evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that Continental had "manufactured" the replacement cylinder assembly. Thus, because Continental’s replacement cylinder assembly had been installed approximately six years before the accident, GARA’s 18-year limitation did not bar suit against the company.

Causation. Adopting in full the trial court’s reasoning with respect to causation, the appellate court concluded that there was sufficient evidence showing that Continental’s defective cylinder assembly had caused the crash.

Failure to warn. Continental also asserted that the trial court erred in submitting the survivors’ failure to warn claim to the jury because: (1) GARA prohibits such claims brought more than 18 years after the aircraft’s first delivery; and (2) the instructions were misleading. The appellate court dismissed the first contention for the reasons discussed previously, i.e., GARA’s 18-year statute of repose did not protect Continental from liability because the company had manufactured the cylinder assembly that was installed in 2004. Continental’s reliance on a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holding that a "failure to warn about a newly perceived problem" does not restart GARA’s 18-year clock absent the installation of a new component part was misplaced because it was not Continental’s failure to warn that reset the 18-year bar; rather, it was the installation of the new cylinder assembly. With respect to Continental’s second argument, the appellate panel determined that the trial court’s instructions had accurately conveyed the law to the jury.

Evidentiary rulings. Finally, the panel rejected Continental’s challenges to the trial court’s evidentiary rulings. The testimony of the survivors’ experts—one of whom had concluded that the exhaust valve guide had been defectively manufactured—was admissible, as were various third-party documents relating to exhaust valve guide failures (e.g., "Certificates of Compliance" and "Service Difficulty Reports"). The documents were not introduced as direct evidence of a defect but, instead, were put forward to show that Continental had knowledge that its exhaust valve guides were dangerous.

The case is No. 17-3182.

Attorneys: John R. Merinar, Jr. (Steptoe & Johnson LLP) for Elizabeth C. Snider. Patrick J. Hughes (Connell Foley LLP) for Sterling Airways. Laurie A. Salita (Skinner Law Group) for Continental Motors Inc.

Companies: Sterling Airways; Continental Motors Inc.

MainStory: TopStory SofLReposeNews DefensesLiabilityNews EvidentiaryNews ExpertEvidenceNews AircraftWatercraftNews DelawareNews NewJerseyNews PennsylvaniaNews VirginIslandsNews

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