Plane maker not liable for fatal crash in Mexico

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 22, 2011, 9:44am


OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) - The Washington State Supreme Court, in a ruling earlier this month, said a trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of an aircraft manufacturer.

The Court, in an opinion filed April 7, reversed an appeals court's decision and reinstated summary judgment for Twin Commander Aircraft LLC.

The aircraft manufacturer's appeal stems from an airplane crash near Aguascalientes, Mexico, in which seven people died. The personal representative of the decedents' estates, Kenneth C. Burton, brought wrongful death actions against Twin Commander.

A trial court had found in favor of Twin Commander on the ground that the statute of repose in the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 bars the actions.

Specifically, the statute bars a suit against a manufacturer of general aviation aircraft if the accident occurred 18 years or more after delivery of the aircraft to its first purchaser. Twin Commander, as a type certificate holder, is considered a manufacturer within the contemplation of GARA as a matter of law.

Burton relies on the "fraud exception" to GARA's statute of repose.

However, the state's high court noted, to obtain the benefit of this exception, a claimant must plead and prove, with specificity, facts that establish that the defendant manufacturer knowingly misrepresented, concealed or withheld from the Federal Aviation Administration information that must be reported that is "material and relevant to the performance or the maintenance or operation of such aircraft, or the component, system, subassembly or other part, that is causally related to the (claimant's alleged) harm."

The Court, in its majority ruling written by Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, said there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Twin Commander knowingly withheld information from the FAA that it was required to report.

"The claim that the 'fraud exception' applies rests on the contention that Twin Commander was required to reevaluate a 1992 accident that had already been reported and thoroughly investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, conclude that the earlier accident involved the same problem that led to other aircraft accidents in 2002 and 2003 (although the board's conclusion about the cause of the crash was otherwise), and connect the earlier accident to the later accidents in reports to the FAA," the Court said.

"It is doubtful that the personal representative has produced sufficient evidence to show that information required to be reported was misrepresented, concealed or withheld, but we base our decision on other grounds, i.e., the dispositive matter is that the personal representative has produced no facts that could establish the requisite 'knowing' state of mind."

Although Burton relies almost exclusively on two e-mails sent by a Twin Commander officer describing the accidents, there is nothing in the e-mails that raises a question of material fact as to whether company officials knowingly misrepresented or withheld information from the FAA, the Court said.

"Indeed, there is nothing in the e-mails that even suggests such knowledge, a burden that the statute places on the plaintiff to establish," it wrote.

"Absent evidence on this necessary element of the 'fraud exception,' there is no material fact issue as to whether the exception applies. This being the case, GARA's statute of repose bars this action."

Justice Debra L. Stephens dissented, along with Justice Tom Chambers and Richard B. Sanders, justice pro tem. Stephens said she would affirm the appeals court's ruling and remand the case for trial.

She said genuine issues of material fact regarding the applicability of the fraud exception remain.

"The majority improperly shifts the burden on summary judgment to Burton and imposes an impermissibly high burden at that. Moreover, the majority misreads the reporting requirements of 14 C.F.R. § 21.3. Read correctly, the regulation does not excuse Twin Commander from reporting certain information as a matter of law," Stephens wrote.

"Finally, the majority ignores a number of clear factual disputes between the parties that render this matter inappropriate for summary judgment."

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