The Law Office of Kurt H King

January 29, 2013

Pre-impact Terror and Actual Knowledge for Punitive Damages in Aircraft Product Liability Case

The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals recently issued its opinion ED97375 in Delacroix v. Doncasters, Inc. (01.15.2013), an airplane product liability case.  That court affirmed $4 million of compensatory damages as to each of the five persons killed in the 07.29.2006 crash of a sky-diving plane, but denied plaintiffs $28 million of punitive damages also awarded by the Franklin County jury in a trial bifurcated as a sanction against Doncasters,Inc., for late production of 8000 documents to plaintiffs’ counsel.

Besides the bifurcation sanction, this case holds interest in at least three areas:

1.  Court agrees that plaintiffs are entitled to recover for pre-impact terror during the 52 seconds that it took the plane to hurtle to ground after a defectively coated compression turbine blade failed and destroyed the right engine.  Simply put, the court found the passengers killed by the crash began to suffer injury–terror, distress–when the engine failed and before the physical impact brought death.  Therefore, no error in submitting the case to the jury using MAI 5.01 with language allowing award of damages for the damages that the deceased persons suffered between the time of injury and death.

2.  Plaintiffs sought to offer evidence of twenty-six similar blade failures.  However, the court excluded all, finding cause of blade failure in those incidents did not match that of the blade at issue in this case–substandard coatings which allowed corrosion of the also substandard base metal of the blade.

3.  The court of appeals took away the jury’s $28 million award of punitive damages, finding the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts failed to show the required actual knowledge by the defendant of the defective condition.  Plaintiffs’ experts testified that the company knew that the blades failed to pass–twice–FAA 150 hour endurance tests  in the subject engine type and therefore knew the blades were defective prior to 1986.  Indeed, the company’s representative testified that defendant Doncasters, Inc., knew the blades were defective but claimed to have only first so learned in 2001, some time after Doncasters bought the company that sold these defective blades in 1996.   Why were the blades not recalled and/or warnings sent out by Doncasters after purportedly discovering defects in 2001?

In any event, the dissenting judge opines that plaintiffs’ expert testimony certainly satisfied the burden of proof on actual knowledge of the company that its blades were defective due to inferior anti-corrosion coating and substandard base metals which never passed FAA endurance tests.  Indeed, the jury surely thought that Doncasters’ fault so serious as to be deserving of $28 million in punitive damages to punish it and deter others from such reckless disregard for the safety of others.   A strong point of the dissent is that the jury is free to disbelieve Doncasters’ claim it first learned of the defective condition in 2001, and plaintiffs’ experts testified to defendant’s actual knowledge as being prior to 1986.  [Keep in mind, that the purchaser of the stock of a company, as Doncasters presumably did in this case, generally renders the purchaser liable for the liabilities of the company it so purchased.]

Interesting case handled for the plaintiffs by good lawyers–Gary and Anita Robb of Kansas City.

Kurt H. King

Law Office of Kurt H. King, 20 E. Franklin, Liberty, Clay County, Missouri 64068

816.781.6000

Personal Injury, Workers’ Compensation, General Litigation

http://www.kurthking.com

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