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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 8, 2013

$20 Million Compensatory Damages Award Against Aircraft Engine Blade Maker Upheld; $28 Million Punitive Damages Award Restored

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

An award of $20 million in compensatory damages to the parents of five individuals killed in an airplane crash against the manufacturer of replacement blades used in the airplane’s engine was affirmed by a Missouri Court of Appeals (Delacroix v. Doncasters, Inc., May 7, 2013, Wood, G.). The court of appeals also reversed the trial court’s judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the jury’s award of $28 million in punitive damages.

Background. Victoria Delacroix, Melissa Berridge, Robert Cook, and Robert Walsh were passengers aboard a DHC-6 Twin Otter airplane that was owned by Adventure Aviation and that was operated by Quantum Leap for use in skydiving adventures. Scott Cowan was the pilot. All five people were killed when the right engine failed shortly after takeoff and the plane crashed. The PT6A-20 engine, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC), was originally equipped with compressor turbine blades (CT-blades) that were replaced prior to Adventure Aviation’s purchase of the plane with CT-blades manufactured by Doncasters, Inc. The replacement blades were manufactured with a different coating (SermaLoy J) and a different base metal alloy (Inconel-738) than those used in the original blades. The coating and alloy are used to prevent oxidation. The parents of the decedents filed strict liability claims against Doncasters, alleging that the replacement blades were defective and were responsible for the deaths of the decedents.

At trial, the parents presented experts who testified that the SermaLoy J coating was prone to cracking, the Inconel-738 had low oxidation resistance, and the coating cracked and allowed the oxidation of the Inconel-738 metal alloy, resulting in the fracture of a CT-blade, the failure of the engine, and the crash. The jury found Doncasters liable for the decedents’ deaths and awarded the parents a collective $20 million for the five wrongful death claims as compensatory damages. The parents also introduced evidence that the CT-blades failed testing and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification requirements prior to their manufacture and sale, and the plaintiffs were awarded a collective $28 million in punitive damages.

The defendants filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdicts, and also motions for remitter, reduction of the judgment, and new trial. The trial court granted only the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the punitive damages award. Both sides appealed.

Defect as the cause of the crash. The trial court’s denial of motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdicts on compensatory damages was not in error because there was substantial evidence that the CT-blades were defective and caused the decedents’ injuries. The defendants argued that there was no substantial evidence that the accident was caused by a defect in the CT-blades at the time they were sold. The parents’ experts—an aircraft design expert and a metallurgical expert—testified that the blades were in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous for use in the airplane because the coating and the alloy used by Doncasters did not satisfy PWC’s design criteria. The metallurgical expert stated that the SermaLoy J coating was prone to cracking, which provided a way for the Inconel-738 alloy to become oxidized, and the Inconel-738 was more prone to high-temperature oxidation than the alloy specified by PWC. This was substantial evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that the CT-blades were in a defective condition at the time of sale, the appellate court determined. Furthermore, the expert testimony on redirect that there was evidence of oxidation in the CT-blades prior to the failure of the engine constituted substantial evidence that the defective condition of the CT-blades allowed their cracking and oxidation, the subsequent failure of the engine, and the crash.

Evidence of other parties’ fault. The exclusion of evidence that the fault of other parties’ combined to cause the accident was not in error, the court of appeals ruled. Doncasters proffered the testimony of its expert, who would have testified that the airplane was operated without a right torque gauge for 59 flights before the crash, and that the pilot, Quantum Leap, Adventure Aviation, and a mechanic failed to properly conduct an engine overhaul, and that these combined were the sole cause of the accident.

However, the expert’s opinion regarding the torque gauge was based on an absence of torque recordings on daily data sheets for three weeks prior to the accident, and it was speculative to assume as a result that the airplane was operated without a torque gauge for 59 flights. Even if it had, it was also speculative that the lack of a functional gauge resulted in undue engine stress. Because the opinion was a mere guess on the expert’s part, it had no probative value.

Furthermore, because the expert’s testimony regarding the operation of the plane was properly excluded, evidence of Doncasters’ theory of causation, which rested on a combination of negligence operation and negligent maintenance, was no longer relevant and could not be introduced. Because Doncasters was permitted at trial to introduce evidence that the airplane was overdue for an engine overhaul and that the blades that would have prevented the engine from shifting into the CT-blades would have been replaced during the overhaul, both of which directly supported the company’s theory of the accident, Doncasters was not deprived of a fair trial by being denied the right to name other parties and argue for their negligence.

Evidence of FAA certification. Evidence that the CT-blades were safety-certified by the FAA was properly excluded, according to the appellate court. Because Doncasters did not argue that the FAA certification was admissible as substantive evidence that the CT-blades were not defective because they met government standards until it moved for a new trial, it did not preserve this argument for appeal. In addition, it was not admissible as rebuttal evidence because the parents’ relevant expert testimony was limited to the opinion that the CT-blades were defective because they did not meet PWC’s design specifications, and there was no evidence that Doncasters was required to seek PWC’s approval. Therefore, evidence of FAA certification was not relevant to explain or disprove any evidence introduced at the trial.

Punitive damages. The trial court’s judgment notwithstanding the evidence on the jury’s award of $28 million in punitive damages was reversed because the parents had presented evidence sufficient for a reasonable juror to find that Doncasters had actual knowledge that the CT-blades were defective when sold and that Doncasters acted with a complete indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others. The parents’ experts presented evidence that the CT-blades in the Twin Otter’s engine never passed a 150-hour endurance test in the PT6A-20 engine and had failed two tests prior to their manufacture for use in this type of engine. The parents’ experts testified without objection that this provided Doncasters actual knowledge that the CT-blades were in a defective condition, and the jury was entitled to rely upon this testimony, the court of appeals said. Furthermore, the parents’ experts testified that Doncasters’ actions constituted a disregard for the safety of others, and Doncasters’ corporate representative agreed that the failure of a CT blade had a high likelihood of causing serious injury or death due to crash potential and that a company in the aviation industry that sells a product it knows to be defective is acting recklessly.

The case number is ED97375.

Attorneys: Edward L. Dowd, Jr., James F. Bennett, Terrence J. O’Toole and Selena E. Gillham for Susan Delacroix, Barbara Berridge, Mark Cook and Annette Banchand, Joan Walsh, and James Cowan; Gary C. Robb, Anita Porte Robb, Randy W. James, and Gary R. Sarachan for Doncasters, Inc.

Companies: Doncasters, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews AircraftWatercraftNews MissouriNews

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