Aircraft Crash Injury Claim In California

On February 26, 1995, a two-seater aircraft piloted by plaintiff James X took off from Reed-Hillview Airport in San Jose. The passenger was plaintiff Jared X, James X's nephew. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft lost power and crashed. Both James and Jared X suffered serious personal injuries. Plaintiff Joseph X, father of Jared, witnessed the crash from the ground. Plaintiffs' expert stated that the source of the plane's losing power was a defective carburetor containing a float made from composite materials. Over time and with changes in the chemistry of gasoline, the composite float absorbed fuel and became heavy. The float's loss of buoyancy caused a change in the fuel-air mixture, resulting in interruption of power. the carburetor, known as the Marvel-Schebler Aviation carburetor, or MSA carburetor, model MA-3A, was manufactured in 1968 by the MarvelSchebler Division of X-X Corporation (now known as X-X Security Corp., hereafter X-X). X-X sold its MarvelSchebler carburetor line to Facet Aerospace Products Co. in 1983 (a subsidiary of Facet Enterprises, Inc., hereafter Facet). Facet sold the Marvel-Schebler product line to X Fuel Systems, Inc., in 1990, and shortly thereafter defendant Precision Airmotive Corp. (Precision) acquired the product line. Although Precision began manufacturing aircraft carburetors in 1991, it did not manufacture, design or sell the model of carburetor involved in the accident in this case. Production of this particular carburetor containing the composite float ceased in 1984, six years before Precision acquired the product line. Problems with composite carburetor floats absorbing fuel and sinking were well documented. Facet issued a service bulletin in May of 1984 to "All Outlets," recommending the replacement of composite floats with metal floats in all Marvel-Schebler carburetors "at next overhaul or immediately." Later that year, in August of 1984, Facet requested that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issue an airworthiness directive relating to the replacement of composite floats in Marvel-Schebler carburetors. An airworthiness directive (AD) is a finding by the FAA of an unsafe condition in a product and it orders corrective action with which aircraft owners must comply. A notice of proposed rulemaking appeared in the Federal Register proposing the adoption of an AD that would require all carburetor composite floats to be replaced with metal floats by 1988. The notice stated that "the FAA has determined that composite carburetor floats are absorbing fuel and becoming less buoyant, thus adversely affecting the carburetor's ability to control fuel level, leading eventually to carburetor flooding." The notice further stated that Facet, which had purchased the Marvel-Schebler carburetor line, had obtained a design change which would reintroduce a metal float compatible with the chemistry of current blends of aviation gasoline. Facet had available a replacement kit for approximately $ 57, which would require approximately four hours to install. Although this notice was published in the Federal Register, the AD was not adopted by the FAA. In June of 1990, Facet renewed its request for an AD. In its letter to the FAA, Facet noted that there continued to be incidents of saturation of composite floats due to increased use of low lead fuels and autogas. Facet estimated that it had sold approximately 75,000 replacement kits but that there were still approximately 83,000 composite floats in the field. Facet urged the issuance of an AD requiring the replacement of the composite floats remaining in the field. the engine manufacturer, X-X, Inc., supported the request. Shortly thereafter, in July of 1990, Precision acquired the Marvel-Schebler product line. In October of 1990, Precision issued a "Mandatory Service Bulletin" (No. MSA-1) "to clarify time of compliance for replacement of the carburetor float and to reflect acquisition of the Facet Aerospace product line (Marvel Schebler Aviation Carburetors) by Precision Airmotive Corporation." The bulletin noted that reports from the field indicated that composite floats "may be absorbing fluid and sinking." It stated that Precision considered it was "mandatory" to replace the composite floats with metal floats "within the next 90 days or 25 hours of engine operation" if the aircraft was experiencing a flooding carburetor, rough engine or inconsistent engine shutdown. The bulletin provided information about metal float replacement kits which were available from local distributors. Finally, it noted that that an AD had been requested of the FAA. This bulletin was sent to aircraft repair stations and maintenance personnel and to X-X, manufacturer of the engine. In September of 1991, the AD had not been issued and Precision wrote again to the FAA requesting the issuance of an AD requiring replacement of composite floats with metal floats in all Facet/Marvel-Schebler carburetors. the letter stated: "As the new manufacturer of the Facet/Marvel Schebler carburetor, Precision Airmotive feels very strongly that the composite floats constitute a significant safety of flight problem and must be removed from service." Randy X, manager of engineering and product support for Precision, met with a representative of the FAA regarding the AD requested for replacement of the composite float and two other AD's requested by Precision. Thereafter, in November of 1991, Precision sent out a new service bulletin package, with a revised Mandatory Service Bulletin No. MSA-1, to all repair stations and maintenance personnel. This package included a cover letter informing the recipient that Precision was now the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of the Marvel-Schebler carburetor, having purchased the product line from Facet. Revised No. MSA-1 required that the Marvel-Schebler composite float be removed "immediately" and replaced with a metal float as per the instructions in the replacement kit. The FAA once again declined to issue an AD regarding the replacement of the composite float with a metal float. The FAA informed Precision in July of 1992 that after reviewing service difficulty records it had concluded that "there was not significant difference in the problems associated with the composite or metal floats and that regulatory action was not warranted at this time." X X, the mechanic for the aircraft in question in this case, stated that he was aware of reports of composite floats absorbing fuel and sinking and that he had received the Mandatory Service Bulletins issued by Precision. However, when he conducted the annual inspection of the aircraft in September of 1994, just months before the accident, he did not inspect the carburetor to see if it had a metal or a composite float. He did not feel it was necessary to comply with the Mandatory Service Bulletins because he did not believe the bulletins constituted an "airworthiness requirement." He performed the annual inspection and certified the aircraft as airworthy. The owner of the aircraft, David X, stated that he did not receive a copy of No. MSA-1 from Precision. In September of 1993, he did receive a notice sent by X-X, Inc., informing him of the active service publications which could pertain to the model of engine in his airplane. This notice suggested that he have his maintenance facility review the list of service bulletins for their relevance to his specific model of engine. the notice further explained that service bulletins "describe mandatory procedures that must be observed for safety reasons . . . ." It advised him to "please make sure you have complied with each of the Service Bulletins." The notice then listed 20 active service bulletins, including the No. MSA-1 issued by Precision. However copies of these service bulletins were not attached to the notice. X stated that he expected his mechanic, X X, to be familiar with the mandatory service bulletins and to comply with them during his annual inspection. Plaintiffs sued X, X (doing business as X X Aviation), Precision, and X-X, Inc. the complaint was amended to add defendant X-X. Plaintiffs alleged theories of negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty relating to the design, manufacture and maintenance of the aircraft's engine and carburetor. Motions for summary adjudication by X-X and X-X were granted as to all three causes of action of plaintiffs James and Jared X on the ground that their claims were time-barred under the provisions of the federal GARA (Pub.L. No. 103-298, 108 Stat. 1552, 49 U.S.C. 40101 note). That statute provides for an 18-year limitations period for lawsuits against manufacturers of general aviation aircraft or component parts of such aircraft. The court likewise granted Precision's motion for summary adjudication under GARA as to the theories of strict liability and breach of warranty on the ground that Precision was a successor to the manufacturer of the carburetor, but the court denied Precision's motion as to the negligence cause of action, finding that, "liberally construed," the complaint stated a cause of action for negligence on a theory of product support. Thereafter, Precision filed a second motion for summary adjudication as to the remaining cause of action for negligence of plaintiffs James and Jared X on grounds that this was a product liability claim which was barred and preempted by GARA, Precision owed no independent duty with regard to the product, even if it had a duty, Precision satisfied that duty by issuing the service bulletins. The court granted the motion for summary adjudication, finding that Precision, as a successor to the original manufacturer of the product, was entitled to the protection of GARA and that any duty to warn was the same duty owed by the original manufacturer and not an independent duty. Judgment was entered in favor Precision. plaintiffs have failed to establish a negligence cause of action based on an independent duty to warn theory of liability. Precision's duty to warn derived from the duty of manufacturers and successor manufacturers of general aviation aircraft parts imposed by federal law. Product liability claims based on breach of such a duty are barred by the statute of repose contained in GARA.