By David Yucht, J.D.
An aircraft mechanic’s accidental connection of an air hose, not the manufacturer’s testing tool, to an engine cylinder extension was a reasonable inference supporting his widow’s design defect claim.
Although the use of a manufacturer’s tool for testing pressure in airplane engine cylinders did not cause an aircraft mechanic’s fatal injury, the theory of proximate cause posited by his widow—that he accidentally connected an air hose, not the testing tool, to an extension attached to the engine cylinder being tested—was not overly speculative because a defect in the product was alleged to have caused the injury, according to an unpublished opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Consequently, the appellate court reversed the judgement of a federal district court in Alabama which had granted summary judgment for the tool’s manufacturer on claims against it brought by the mechanic’s widow (Rodgers v. AWB Industries, Inc., January 16, 2019, Baldock, B.).
An aircraft mechanic, who also was an experienced pilot, pushed, with the help of two other men, a small aircraft into a hangar. He told the men that he needed to perform a compression test on the airplane’s engine, and they stood by, waiting to help after the compression test was completed. The mechanic performed compression tests, using an AWB Differential Pressure Tester—manufactured by AWB Industries, Inc., d/b/a Aircraft Tool Supply Company (AWB), an aircraft maintenance tool manufacturer—on the two cylinders located on the right side of the engine. Essentially, he introduced a known quantity of compressed air, regulated via the tester, into an engine cylinder. A gauge on the tester displayed the amount of compression the cylinder maintained, thereby revealing the cylinder’s air leakage rate. To conduct this test, the mechanic needed to connect the tester to an extender hose which attached to the cylinder. The extender contained no air-regulating mechanism and did not perform any function apart from the tester. When an extender is used, the tester is not connected directly to the cylinder. The source of the air was an unregulated shop compressed air hose that was also coupled to the tester.
After testing the right side of the engine, the mechanic pushed the air hose under the airplane and walked around to the left side of the engine where he appeared to be setting up the rest of the test. Neither witness saw what happened next, but suddenly, the airplane propeller rotated quickly and forcefully. The propeller blade struck the mechanic in the left side of the head and chest, and stopped. He fell to the ground and was unresponsive, and he was taken to the hospital with an open skull fracture and died several days later.
Photos of the scene taken after the propeller blade struck the mechanic showed the tester was sitting on top of the left side of the engine, not connected to anything. The shop air hose was lying on the hangar floor next to the left side of the engine. It was undisputed that the mechanic connected the shop air hose rather than the tester and consequently introduced unregulated compressed air into the cylinder causing the propeller to rotate.
In her lawsuit against AWB, the widow claimed that if the AWB tester had a larger coupler to couple with the extender, the unregulated shop air hose could not have been attached accidently to the extender, and this fatal accident could not have occurred. Her complaint alleged that AWB manufactured a defectively designed compression tester. The district court found that her theory of proximate causation was too speculative and granted AWB’s motion for summary judgment. She appealed.
Proximate cause. Finding that proximate causation was not speculative and that the allegation that the mechanic had accidentally connected the shop air hose to the extender was reasonable, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appeals court noted that it was undisputed that connecting the air hose, rather than the tester, to the extender was what caused the propeller to turn. The only dispute was whether the mechanic put compressed air directly into the cylinder accidentally or intentionally with a different purpose in mind. Although AWB argued that it was "completely unknown" what the mechanic intended, the appellate court opined that most likely he was attempting to perform a compression test. The mechanic told the witnesses that he was performing a compression test, he had just performed compression tests on the right cylinders, and he had brought all the tools necessary to perform a compression test to the left side of the engine. Moreover, he attached the tester’s extender—the only safe use for which was a compression test—to the left-front cylinder. The court deemed that AWB’s theory that the mechanic was in some way performing another test or procedure was itself speculative. Furthermore, a jury reasonably could conclude that the mechanic, having stated that he was performing a compression test and set up to perform such a test, accidentally inserted air into the cylinder in an attempt to perform the compression test. The court noted that the widow still had the burden of presenting "substantial evidence of proximate cause" at trial.
Product not used. The appellate court also was not swayed by AWB’s alternative argument that the defective design of the tester could not be the proximate cause of the injury because the tester was not being used when the accident occurred. Alabama law does not require the "use" of a product to uphold a design defect, breach of warranty, or negligence or wantonness claim. Proof that a product was used as intended is not an element of the causes of action. For liability to be found, the defective condition of a product, not the use of a product, must cause the injury. Here, if the tester’s output had a larger coupling size, which would necessarily require a larger coupling size on the extender’s input, this injury could not have occurred.
Foreseeability. Further, the Eleventh Circuit found that the mechanic’s injury was foreseeable. An article from an online aviation website noted that an airframe shop manager had installed unique couplings on his shop’s compression test adapter which made it virtually impossible to connect it to unregulated shop air. Also, the widow’s human error expert testified that a cursory examination of potential human errors in the use of the tester would show that the admission of unregulated, high-pressure air into the cylinder was a critical error, which could lead to immediate injury to anyone near the propeller.
The case is No. 17-10897.
Attorneys: Robert P. Bruner (Belt & Bruner, PC) for Gloria Rodgers. Paul J. Demarco (Parsons Lee & Juliano, PC) for AWB Industries, Inc. d/b/a Aircraft Tool Supply Co.
Companies: AWB Industries, Inc. d/b/a Aircraft Tool Supply Co.
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