By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
In an action arising out of the death of a U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant in a helicopter accident, the helicopter manufacturer was not entitled to summary judgment on product liability and negligence claims based on design and manufacturing defects under the military contractor defense, a federal district court in California held. In reaching this conclusion, the court determined that genuine issues of fact existed related to whether the manufacturer actually had designed the aircraft under military specifications, among other issues. The court also ruled on various other motions filed by the manufacturer and other defendants (D.F. v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., October 27, 2017, Curiel, G.).
The Staff Sergeant was killed when a faulty wiring harness of a CH-53E helicopter, manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., caused the landing gear to retract while he was underneath the aircraft removing safety pins from the landing gear. An investigation of the incident determined that the cause of the accident was the disrepair of the wiring in the landing gear control panel, and that the overall design of the wiring harness exacerbated the danger posed by the exposed wires.
The Staff Sergeant’s minor son and his live-in girlfriend’s minor daughter, through their guardian ad litem, brought an action alleging strict products liability with respect to design and manufacturing, negligent products liability with respect to design and manufacturing, and general negligence against a number of companies responsible for the design, manufacture, inspection, and maintenance of the helicopter, including E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., the manufacturer of a wiring insulation used in the aircraft’s landing gear component; Sikorsky, the aircraft manufacturer; and Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. (SSSI), the company that maintained and inspected the aircraft. Pending before the court were motions for summary judgment filed by DuPont and Sikorsky, along with a motion to exclude the plaintiff’s expert witnesses filed by Sikorsky.
DuPont’s claim. DuPont, the manufacturer of an allegedly defective component part of the subject helicopter, sought summary judgment on the ground that its actions did not cause the decedent’s death. DuPont claimed that its Kapton wiring insulation had not caused the inadvertent landing gear retraction; therefore, it could not be held responsible for the decedent’s death. The plaintiffs offered no opposition to DuPont’s assertion as to causation. Thus, because causation was an essential element of the tort action against DuPont, the court reasoned that DuPont was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Sikorsky, as co-defendant, unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the summary judgment ruling by arguing that it had not yet been determined whether the DuPont wiring had been the cause of the accident. The court declined to withhold the summary judgment ruling, but noted that the dismissal of DuPont did not amount to a finding of fact or a legal determination on the merits. Asserting that at trial, Sikorsky will be free to argue that the DuPont-manufactured Kapton insulation caused the accident, and the plaintiffs may not rely on the dismissal of DuPont to make any factual assertion to the contrary.
Challenges to expert testimony. The aircraft manufacturer sought to exclude the testimony of two of the plaintiffs’ experts based on challenges to their qualification and reliability. Upon a review of the reports submitted by the experts, the court found them both to be qualified to render their opinions and concluded that the challenges to the reliability of their testimony went to the weight of the opinions versus their admissibility. Thus, the motions to exclude the experts’ testimonies were denied.
Sikorsky’s claims for judgment. The aircraft manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment was granted in part and denied in part. Summary judgment was granted as to the claims against SSSI. The manufacturer asserted that because SSSI was not involved in the design, manufacture, marketing, or sale of the subject aircraft, it could not have been the cause of the decedent’s accident. Because the plaintiffs did not oppose this claim, the court concluded that SSSI was entitled to summary judgment. The court also granted judgment in favor of the manufacturer on any claims asserting liability based on the manufacturer’s failure to warn under the sophisticated user defense. Based on the evidence presented, the court concluded that the decedent was a sophisticated user who was aware of the risks associated with forcibly removing the landing gear safety pin if it resisted.
The manufacturer’s remaining arguments for summary judgment were rejected. The court opined that genuine disputes of fact precluded a finding that the military contractor defense was applicable to relieve the manufacturer of liability. Specifically, the court found that questions existed related to whether the accident was caused by a military-specified design, whether the military had specifically approved the design of the landing gear wire configuration, and whether the aircraft design had, in fact, conformed to the military specifications. Furthermore, as to the manufacturer’s claim that a superseding cause—i.e., the military’s decision not to replace the Kapton wiring insulation in the aircraft— broke the chain of causation, the court held that summary judgment on this issue was not warranted because a determination of whether the Kapton wiring insulation had been the cause of the accident was still outstanding.
Wrongful death standing. Finally, as to the challenge to the standing of the decedent’s girlfriend’s minor daughter to assert a wrongful death claim, the court opined that based on the facts presented a reasonable jury could find that during the 180 days prior to the decedent’s death, the minor child had been dependent on the decedent for more than one-half of her support. Consequently, judgment in favor of the manufacturer on this issue was not warranted at this stage of the proceeding.
The case is No. 3:13-cv-00331-GPC-KSC.
Attorneys: Lars Christian Johnson (Grassini, Wrinkle & Johnson) for Dominic Fontalvo. Christopher S. Hickey (Fitzpatrick & Hunt, Pagano, Aubert, LLP) and Jesse F. Ruiz (Robinson & Wood) for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. and United Technologies Corp.
Companies: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.; Sikorsky Support Services, Inc.; United Technologies Corp.
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