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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 28, 2015

Helicopter makers could not be hauled into California court over Georgia crash

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A California federal court lacked general and specific jurisdiction over the manufacturers, distributors, and maintenance service providers of a military helicopter that crashed in a federal enclave in Georgia, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot and crew chief. However, the California court refused to transfer the case to Georgia because there was no evidence that Georgia had jurisdiction over the claims. Finally, the court rejected the argument that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the political question doctrine (Carpenter v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., April 27, 2015, Kronstadt, J.).

Background. On a planned flight of an MH-60M Blackhawk helicopter from St. Augustine, Florida to Hunter Army Airfield in Savanah, Georgia, the helicopter suddenly experienced a failure of the tail rotor pitch change shaft and began to rotate. Despite the flight crew’s attempts to stop the rotation, the helicopter spun out of control and crashed. The co-pilot suffered severe injuries and died shortly after the crash. The pilot and crew chief suffered severe injuries, but survived. Family members of the flight crew filed a lawsuit sounding in products liability, negligence, and breach of warranty against the companies allegedly responsible for manufacturing, inspecting, and maintaining the helicopter, including Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.; Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance; Prototype Engineering and Manufacturing, Inc.; Cubic Defense Applications, Inc.; BAE Systems, Inc.; BAE Systems Simula, Inc.; BAE Systems, Aerospace & Defense Group, Inc. The plaintiffs alleged that the crash was caused by defects in the tail rotor pitch change shaft and that the injuries, in part, were caused by the failure of the seats to absorb or attenuate the force of the impact. The Sikorsky and BAE Defendants moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, and Prototype challenged the claim as barred by the political question doctrine.

Personal jurisdiction. The court found no evidence that the Sikorsky Defendants or the BAE Defendants were subject to general or specific jurisdiction in California. None of the affiliated companies were California corporations or had their principal places of business in California. The plaintiffs offered no evidence that this was an exceptional case in which general personal jurisdiction would be appropriate over any of these companies in a state other than where its principal place of business was located or where it was incorporated. Similarly, there was no evidence that these companies had the requisite minimum contacts with California to establish specific jurisdiction. Although there was some evidence that the Sikorsky Defendants had limited contact derived from sales in California, those contacts were not linked to the helicopter or the accident in this case.

Political question doctrine. Prototype had argued that there was no subject matter jurisdiction because the political question doctrine applied. According to Prototype, because the helicopter had been built in accordance with precise military specifications, the case, if allowed to proceed, would require a fact-finder to second guess military decisions, review specifications dictated by the military, and review military training procedures. Based on Prototype’s argument, every case involving military contractors would present a political question, the court suggested. However, cited case law did not support this theory and the argument was inconsistent with the government contractor defense. Because Prototype failed to distinguish the cited cases, which applied the government contractor defense without rejecting the claims on the basis of the political question doctrine, the court denied the company’s motion to dismiss.

Sufficiency of pleadings. Prototype argued that the complaint was deficient because it set forth a number of product liability theories against each of the named defendants instead of specifying which of the companies performed what functions. As a result, it could not be determined what liability attached to Prototype as the sole remaining defendant and under which state’s laws. The court agreed, but rather than dismissing the complaint for failure to state a claim, the court allowed the plaintiffs time to amend their complaint.

The case is No. LA CV14-07793 (AJWx).

Attorneys: Ronald L. M. Goldman (Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman PC) for Colette Carpenter. Christopher S. Hickey (Fitzpartick & Hunt, Tucker, Pagano, Aubert, LLP) for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., and Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. Carol Chow (Freeman Freeman and Smiley LLP) for Prototype Engineering and Manufacturing, Inc. Patrick J. Kearns (Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman and Dicker LLP) for Cubic Defense Applications, Inc. Bruce D. Campbell (Perkins Coie LLP) for BAE Systems, Inc., BAE Systems Simula, Inc., and BAE Systems Aerospace & Defense Group, Inc.

Companies: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.; Sikorsky Support Services, Inc.; Prototype Engineering and Manufacturing, Inc.; Cubic Defense Applications, Inc.; BAE Systems, Inc.; BAE Systems Simula, Inc.; BAE Systems Aerospace & Defense Group, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory JurisdictionNews AircraftWatercraftNews CaliforniaNews

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