Fitzpatrick & Hunt Obtains Summary Judgment Based on Government Contractor Defense in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Arising from Crash of Osprey Helicopter

Recently, the U.S. District Court for Hawaii granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment in a wrongful death lawsuit based on the government contractor defense (GCD), finding the Defendants satisfied the three GCD elements established by the Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988).

This lawsuit arose from the May 2015 hard landing/crash of an MV-22B Osprey aircraft while attempting to land at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows in Hawaii, resulting in the deaths of two Marines. The personal representatives of the estate of one decedent filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the District Court of Hawaii against The Boeing Company, Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. and Eaton Aerospace, LLC, the designer and manufacturer of the blowers in the aircraft’s Engine Air Particle Separator (EAPS) system.

Plaintiffs alleged the crash was caused by the failure of one of the aircraft’s engines after the EAPS system purportedly failed to prevent engine ingestion of sand and particulates during the landing in brownout conditions. All three defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on the GCD.

Regarding the first Boyle element, the Court found the defendants carried their burden to establish that the United States approved reasonably precise specifications for the EAPS system. Detail specification in the full-scale development contract for the aircraft contained NAVAIR’s specifications for the EAPS system, including efficiency requirements. These requirements were the result of negotiations between defendants and NAVAIR, which had the exclusive authority to change the contract’s requirements.

The Court also disagreed with the Plaintiffs’ theory that the defendants failed to provide adequate warnings about the potential defects in the EAPS system, rendering the subject aircraft unreasonably dangerous. NAVAIR was previously aware of incidents involving similar conditions and exercised its discretion in altering its manuals accordingly.

With regard to the second Boyle element, the Court found that the issuance of a DD250 form by the Navy and NAVAIR’s acceptance letter of the subject aircraft showed that the EAPS system complied with the government’s specifications at the time of delivery. The Court noted that “[c]onformity with design specifications is not the same thing as failure to meet performance goals.”

Regarding the third Boyle element, which examined whether the government contractor warned about dangers not known to the government, the Court noted that the V-22 is manufactured exclusively for the government and, therefore, “the Government is the first entity to learn about any danger in the aircraft’s EAPS.” Accordingly, whatever knowledge defendants gained about such dangers must have necessarily come from the Government itself.

Additionally, the Government was aware of a prior similar incident in 2013, but never changed the EAPS system specifications. “Defendants were not required to warn of dangers regarding the V-22 EAPS system that were already known to the government.”

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Fitzpatrick & Hunt, Pagano, Aubert, LLP serves clients in diverse areas, such as aviation and aerospace; general products liability; premises/construction/labor law; cyber security; insurance coverage; entertainment/media and employment law. Our offices are based in New York City; White Plains, New York; Los Angeles; and New Jersey.