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Recent Pennsylvania Superior Court Case Rules That a Service Bulletin Did Not Compromise Aircraft Manufacturers' Protection Under the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 Statute of Repose

December 1, 2009

Pennsylvania -- Aviation

Key Points:

  • General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 provides 18-year statute of repose which begins to run on date aircraft is delivered to first purchaser.
  • Also contains "rolling provision" allowing plaintiff to assert that statute of repose begins to run on date part is installed.
  • Statute of repose not bar claims against aircraft manufacturer in event of misrepresentation, concealment, withholding of essential information regarding performance, maintenance, operation.
  • Service bulletin not an aircraft part that could invoke "rolling provision" and inconsistencies in service bulletin insufficient to prove misrepresentation, concealment, withholding of essential information.


 


This year, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania handed down a decision pertaining to the time in which plaintiffs can assert claims against aircraft manufacturers for death, injury, or property damage as provided in the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-298, 108 Stat. 1552 (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 40101, Note) ("GARA").

Generally, the GARA provides that these type of claims are barred after 18 years from the date of delivery of the aircraft to the first purchasers. However, the Act also contains a "rolling provision," which prescribes that the 18-year period starts when the manufacturer installs a defective aircraft replacement part that is alleged to be the cause of the death, injury, or property damage. Additionally, the statute denies manufacturers repose in the event of misrepresentation, concealment, or withholding of essential information regarding performance, maintenance, or operation of the aircraft.

In Moyer v. Teledyne Cont'l Motors, Inc., 2009 PA Super 124 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009), the court reviewed a number of issues raised by the appellants, the adult children of the decedents Ronald and Judy Moyer, to include whether or not the GARA's 18-year statute of repose should have barred the appellants' claims against the appellee, Teledyne Continental Motors, Inc. ("TCM"), which were dismissed on summary judgment. The court found no error in the trial court's analysis and affirmed the order to dismiss the claims against TCM.

According to the facts brought out by the trial court, the Moyers were killed when their single engine aircraft crashed on January 26, 2003, allegedly due to a defective crankcase. TCM had assembled the Moyers' plane engine, and it was installed and delivered to its original owner on April 8, 1982. In August 1990, TCM issued a service bulletin that contained "crankcase inspection criteria." On May 15, 1998, a crack was discovered on the original crankcase of the Moyers' plane, so the engine was sent to Piedmont Hawthorne Aviations, Inc. ("Piedmont") for repair. Piedmont removed the crankcase and sent it to DivCo, Inc. ("DivCo"). Instead of repairing the original crankcase, DivCo sent a replacement crankcase, which had been repaired on previous occasions, back to Piedmont, who installed it in the Moyers' plane. TCM never inspected, repaired, or modified either the original or the replacement crankcase after the initial assembly.

With regard to the "rolling provision," the appellants argued that the statute of repose should be determined to have started in August 1990 with the issuance of the service bulletin. The appellants relied on a Ninth Circuit case which determined that a flight manual was a "new part" or a "defective system" of a helicopter since it contained instructions necessary for the operation of the aircraft. See Caldwell v. Enstrom Helicopter Corp., 230 F.3d 1155, 1157 (9TH Cir. 2005). The appellants argued that the August 1990 TCM service bulletin was a replacement part because it was similar to a flight manual.

In response, the trial court noted there was no authority in Pennsylvania or the Third Circuit for the proposition that a service bulletin is the equivalent of a flight manual and, given the continual issuance of service manuals, such an interpretation would contradict the intent of the statute of repose. Additionally, the trial court noted that, unlike in Caldwell, the allegedly defective part in the present matter was the crankcase, not the manual.

Next, the appellants argued that the exception to the statute of repose applied because the August 1990 service bulletin evidenced TCM's misrepresentation, concealment, and withholding of important information. In order to succeed with this argument, the appellants had to prove a knowing misrepresentation, concealment, or withholding of required information that was material and relevant and causally related to the harm suffered. According to the appellants, the August 1990 service bulletin expressed approval of weld repairs for crankcases which was in direct contradiction of TCM's earlier disapproval of the same. Based on this inconsistency, the appellants argued that TCM obviously knew that weld repairs were not safe and, by stating otherwise, they made misrepresentations for financial reasons. In support of this theory, the appellants offered expert opinion that the single TCM test on record was inadequate to justify such a strong reversal and an internal TCM engineering drawing that, unlike the service bulletin, restricted crankcase welding to critical areas.

The trial court disagreed with the appellants' interpretation of TCM's reversal of positions and concluded that the appellants failed to prove that TCM knowingly made any misrepresentation, concealment, or withholding of pertinent information. Additionally, the trial court found that the appellants failed to prove that the weld was done pursuant to the service bulletin or that it was causally related to the accident. Relative to the appellant's expert opinion, the trial court noted that an engineering report revealed that, in addition to the single TCM test, TCM reviewed and evaluated twelve tests which were provided by DivCo and that, even if TCM had relied on only one test, it still would not have warranted an inference that TCM knowingly misrepresented or tried to conceal information when the service bulletin was issued. Relative to the engineering drawing, the trial court noted that TCM acknowledged that the drawing contained errors which were corrected prior to the plane crash in an Engineering Notice issued in 2001.

This recent case is a victory for aircraft manufacturers, and it demonstrates that the issuance of recurrent service bulletins, in and of itself, has not been shown to compromise the aircraft manufacturer's protection under the GARA's 18-year statute of repose.

*Tom is an associate in our Doylestown, Pennsylvania, office who can be reached at (267) 880-2022 or tysong@mdwcg.com.

Defense Digest, Vol. 15, No. 4, December 2009

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