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Rogers v. Bell Helicopter Textron

IN THE COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT (Sacramento)


June 4, 2010

ALIKA ROGERS, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
BELL HELICOPTER TEXTRON, INC., DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, Lloyd A. Phillips, Judge. (Retired Judge of the Sacramento Super. Ct. assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to art. VI, § 6 of the Cal. Const.) Reversed. (Super. Ct. No. 06AS02842).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Plaintiff Alika Rogers was injured in 2005 when the Bell 47D1 helicopter she was piloting crashed near the Rancho Murieta Airport. Among others, Rogers sued the helicopter's manufacturer, defendant Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. (Bell), for negligence. Rogers's claim against Bell was based on an allegedly defective maintenance manual that improperly instructed on balancing the helicopter's tail rotor blades. The helicopter had been in operation since 1951, and the maintenance manual was issued in 1969 and was last revised in 1975.

Bell filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence that the maintenance manual was defective and caused the accident, arguing Rogers's claim was barred as a matter of law by an 18-year federal statute of repose, the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (Pub.L. No. 103-298 (Aug. 17, 1994) 108 Stat. 1552, as amended by Pub.L. No. 105-102, § 3(e) (Nov. 20, 1997) 111 Stat. 2215; printed at 49 U.S.C. § 40101, note; further undesignated section references are to the Act).*fn1

The trial court granted the motion, agreeing with Bell that the maintenance manual was a "part" of the helicopter and was last revised in 1975, rejecting Rogers's argument that the Act did not apply because the manual was not a part of the helicopter. Bell then successfully moved for a non-suit based on the lack of admissible evidence against it. Rogers appeals from the resulting judgment against her.

We conclude the maintenance manual here was not a "part" of the helicopter, and therefore the trial court erred in granting Bell's motion in limine and motion for non-suit.

DISCUSSION

"The proper interpretation of a statute, and its application to undisputed facts, is a question of law that we review de novo." (California Forestry Assn. v. California Fish & Game Commission (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 1535, 1544.) In this de novo review, we begin with the words of the statute. (Id. at pp. 1544-1545.)

With exceptions not applicable here, the Act reads as follows:

"(a)... no civil action for damages for death or injury to persons or damage to property arising out of an accident involving a general aviation aircraft may be brought against the manufacturer of the aircraft or the manufacturer of any new component, system, subassembly, or other part of the aircraft, in its capacity as a manufacturer if the accident occurred--

"(1) after the applicable limitation period beginning on--

"(A) the date of delivery of the aircraft to its first purchaser or lessee, if delivered directly from the manufacturer; or

"(B) the date of first delivery of the aircraft to a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing such aircraft; or

"(2) with respect to any new component, system, subassembly, or other part which replaced another component, system, subassembly, or other part originally in, or which was added to, the aircraft, and which is alleged to have caused such death, injury, or damage, after the applicable limitation period beginning on the date of completion of the replacement or addition." (§ 2(a).)

For purposes of the Act, "the term 'limitation period' means 18 years with respect to general aviation aircraft and the components, systems, subassemblies, and other parts of such aircraft." (§ 3(3).)

Thus, the Act provides three different triggers for the 18-year limitations period on actions against manufacturers of the "parts" of general aviation aircraft, depending on the nature of the "part" involved. One, for any part that was "originally in" the aircraft, the limitations period runs from the date the aircraft was delivered, either to its first purchaser or lessee (if delivered directly from the manufacturer) or to a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing such aircraft. Two, for any part that was "added to" the aircraft, the limitations period runs from "the date of completion of the... addition." And three, for any part that "replaced another... part" of the aircraft -- whether the part replaced was "originally in, or... added to" the aircraft -- the limitations period runs from "the date of completion of the replacement."

With this understanding of the Act in mind, we turn to the issue here -- whether the allegedly defective maintenance manual was a "part" of the helicopter for purposes of the Act.

The Act does not define the term "part." In common usage, a "part" is "an essential portion or integral element." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dict. (11th ed. 2006) p. 903, col. 1.) In turn, an "element" is "a distinct part of a composite device." (Id. at p. 402, col. 2.)

More helpful is the context in which the term appears in the Act. As we have noted, the 18-year limitations period in the Act is triggered by the delivery of the aircraft when an original "part" of the aircraft is at issue, the date of completion of the addition when an added "part" is at issue, and the date of completion of the replacement when a replacement "part" is at issue. Thus, the Act contemplates that the aircraft will be delivered with all of its original parts, although other parts may be added later, and original or added parts may be replaced later.

The concept of delivery is central to Rogers's contention a maintenance manual was not a "part" of the aircraft. Among other things, she argues a maintenance manual is not required to be sold with the aircraft or even be inside the aircraft. She contrasts it to a flight manual, which is required to be sold with the aircraft, "kept in the airplane and utilized by the pilot to fly the aircraft."

In support of her position, Rogers cites Caldwell v. Engstrom Helicopter Corp. (9th Cir. 2000) 230 F.3d 1155 (Caldwell). There, a helicopter crashed 10 minutes from its destination because the pilot was unaware the last two gallons of gasoline in the helicopter's fuel tank were unusable. (Id. at p. 1156.) The plaintiffs sued the helicopter manufacturer for negligence, contending the flight manual was defective because it did not warn that the last two gallons of gasoline would not burn. (Ibid.) The manufacturer moved to dismiss the action, arguing the Act barred the plaintiffs' claims because the "part," i.e., the flight manual, was more than 18 years old. (Caldwell, at p. 1156.) The plaintiffs argued that the flight manual, which was revised several times in the preceding 18 years, was a new system or other part that fell within the Act's rolling provision extending the limitation period with respect to any new part that replaced another part. (Caldwell, at p. 1156.)

The Ninth Circuit held the revised flight manual was a part of the helicopter. (Caldwell, supra, 230 F.3d at p. 1157.) The court reasoned as follows: "As a matter of logic, there are only two possibilities. Either an aircraft's flight manual is a part of the aircraft, or it is a separate product. Federal regulations require that manufacturers of helicopters include a flight manual with each helicopter and require that the manual contain 'information that is necessary for safe operation because of design, operating, or handling characteristics.' [Citation.] The manual specifically must include information about a gas tank's unusable fuel supply, if the unusable portion exceeds one gallon or five percent of the tank capacity. [Citation.] In the face of these requirements, there is no room to assert that a helicopter manufacturer's manual is a separate product. By the rule of the excluded middle, then, it must be part of the aircraft. [¶] In other words, a flight manual is an integral part of the general aviation aircraft product that a manufacturer sells. It is not a separate, general instructional guide (like a book on how to ski), but instead is detailed and particular to the aircraft to which it pertains. The manual is the 'part' of the aircraft that contains the instructions that are necessary to operate the aircraft and is not separate from it. It fits comfortably within the terminology and scope of [the Act]'s rolling provision." (Caldwell, at p. 1157.)

Caldwell supports Rogers's position that the maintenance manual here was not a part of the helicopter. While federal regulations require that a flight manual must be furnished with each helicopter (14 C.F.R. § 27.1581(a) (2009)), there is no analogous provision for a maintenance manual, at least for a helicopter of this age. The federal regulation to which Bell cites as proof that a maintenance manual must be provided to the aircraft's owner upon the aircraft's delivery (14 C.F.R. § 21.50(b) (2009)) has no application here. Specifically, that regulation states, "The holder of a design approval, including either the type certificate or supplemental type certificate for an aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller for which application was made after January 28, 1981, shall furnish at least one set of complete Instructions for Continued Airworthiness, to the owner of each type aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller upon its delivery, or upon issuance of the first standard airworthiness certificate for the affected aircraft, whichever occurs later." (14 C.F.R. § 21.50(b) (2009), italics added.) Since the application for a type certificate for the helicopter here had to have been made long before January 28, 1981, because the helicopter began operating in 1951 and the maintenance manual was not issued until 1969, the regulation had no application.*fn2

This is important because the Act's provisions are tied to the idea of delivery of an aircraft with its original component parts, which here would have included a flight manual but not a maintenance manual.

Our understanding is consistent with other provisions of the Act. Specifically, a replacement "component, system, subassembly, or other part" must replace a "component, system,... or other part" "originally in" or "added to," the aircraft. (§ 2(a)(2).) There is no evidence here the maintenance manual was a part originally in or added to the aircraft.

Since Congress has tied the concept of parts of an aircraft to delivery of the aircraft, even in light of the purpose of the Act, noted as "ameliorat[ing] the impact of long-tail liability on a declining American aviation industry" (Pridgen v. Parker Hannifin Corp. (Pa. 2007) 916 A.2d 619, 622), we must still adhere to the words of the statute (California Forestry Assn. v. California Fish & Game Commission, supra, 156 Cal.App.4th at p. 1545). By selecting the words it did, Congress chose to limit the applicability of the Act to "the components, systems, subassemblies, and other parts of such aircraft." (§ 3(3).) If, as Bell contends, Congress wanted the Act to encompass things like the maintenance manual here, it could have written the Act to reach all items related to the aircraft. It did not.

Our holding is consistent with those from other courts that have considered similar issues. (See, e.g., Colgan Air, Inc. v. Raytheon Aircraft Co. (4th Cir. 2007) 507 F.3d 270, 278 [district court erred in concluding as a matter of law a maintenance manual was part of an aircraft]; Alter v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. (S.D. Tex. 1996) 944 F.Supp. 531, 538 [a maintenance manual was not a part originally in or added to the aircraft and a revision to a manual was not a replacement part that started a new limitations period under the Act]; Moyer v. Teledyne Cont'l Motors, Inc. (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009) 979 A.2d 336, 344 [a service bulletin that instructed on revised maintenance procedures was not the equivalent of a flight manual for purposes of the Act].)

Their reasoning includes some facts similar to those we have considered, including the following: federal regulations do not require a maintenance manual to be onboard the aircraft (Colgan Air, Inc. v. Raytheon Aircraft Co., supra, 507 F.3d at p. 278; Moyer v. Teledyne Cont'l Motors, Inc., supra, 979 A.2d at p. 346); the Act states that a replacement part must replace a part "originally in" or "added to the aircraft," and a maintenance manual was not a "part" "originally in" or "added to" the aircraft (Alter v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., supra, 944 F.Supp. p.538); and, unlike a flight manual that is unique to the aircraft, used by the pilot, and necessary to operate the aircraft, a maintenance manual applies to different aircraft models, is used by the mechanic, and only for troubleshooting and repairing the aircraft (Moyer, at p. 346).

As the trial court here excluded any evidence of the allegedly defective maintenance manual ruling it was a part of the helicopter, Rogers was unable to present her theory of the case. Having found that the maintenance manual was not a part of the helicopter, we reverse the judgment against her.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is reversed. The trial court is directed to enter a new order denying Bell Helicopter's motion in limine based on the Act.

Rogers is awarded her costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a).)

We concur: BLEASE, Acting P. J., CANTIL-SAKAUYE, J.


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