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Rodgers v. Beechcraft Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 29, 2017

JAMES RODGERS and SHERYLL RODGERS, individually and as Husband and Wife; and CHRISTOPHER EVANS and JILL EVANS, individually and as Husband and Wife, Plaintiffs,
v.
BEECHCRAFT CORPORATION, f/k/a Hawker Beechcraft Corporation, a Kansas Corporation; HAWKER BEECHCRAFT GLOBAL CUSTOMER SUPPORT, LLC, f/k/a Hawker Beechcraft Services, Inc., a Kansas limited liability company, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CLAIRE V. LAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Determination of Law (Dkt. # 89) and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and Supporting Memorandum (Dkt. # 94). Defendants argue that plaintiffs lack admissible evidence to support their claims of manufacturer's products liability and negligence. Plaintiffs respond there is evidence supporting an inference that the aircraft manufactured and serviced by defendants had a defective electrical system, alternate landing gear, and instruction manual, and these defects rendered the aircraft unreasonably dangerous as a matter of Oklahoma law.

         I.

         Beechcraft Corporation (Beechcraft) is a Kansas corporation with its principal place of business in Kansas, which designs, manufactures, and sells commercial general aviation aircraft.

         Dkt. # 94-4, at 1. Beechcraft designed and manufactured the Beech Premier 390 jet airplane (Premier 390), and the Premier 390 aircraft identified as RB-226 was manufactured in 2008. Dkt. # 129, at 4. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a standard airworthiness certificate for RB-226 on March 13, 2008. Dkt. # 94-5, at 4. Hawker Beechcraft Global Customer Support, LLC (HBGCS) is a Kansas limited liability company, which provides general aviation inspection and maintenance services under the trade name Hawker Beechcraft Services. Dkt. # 94-4, at 2. HBGCS performed maintenance on RB-226, but it was not the only company that worked on RB-226. Dkt. # 94-7.

         On March 17, 2013, Wesley Caves was the pilot of RB-226, flying the aircraft from Tulsa, Oklahoma to South Bend, Indiana. Dkt. # 129, at 4. James Steven Davis was in the front right passenger seat of the aircraft. Dkt. # 94-6, at 1. Davis had a pilot's license, but he was not rated to fly a jet aircraft or the Premier 390, and his last recorded flight as a pilot was in 2008. Id. at 4. James Rodgers and Christopher Evans were passengers in the rear passenger seats. Dkt. # 129, at 4. The Pilot's Operating Manual (POM) states that:

It is mandatory that you fully understand the contents of this publication and the other operating and maintenance manuals which accompany the airplane; that FAA requirements for ratings, certifications and review be scrupulously complied with and that only persons who are properly licensed and rated, and thoroughly familiar with the contents of the FAA Approved Airplane Flight Manual, Avionics Manual and [POM] be allowed to operate the airplane.

Dkt. # 94-8, at 10. During the flight, Caves told Davis that the landing gear was designed to handle 13, 000 pounds of weight, but that Caves personally had no problem flying the aircraft at 13, 500 pounds. Dkt. # 94-9, at 12. The transcript of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) also shows that an overspeed warning sounded twice, which meant the aircraft was flying in excess of the maximum specified air speed. Id. at 15, 25. Caves allowed Davis to operate the controls of the aircraft, and he directed Davis to pull back on the throttle. Id. at 15-16. Davis told Caves that he was “uncomfortable, ” because the “throttle up throttle down” was setting off an alarm. Id. at 16. At about 16:13:16 on the CVR, Caves directed Davis to pull back on the throttle to reduce the aircraft's speed, and Davis said “just pull down on it?” Id. at 32. The transcript shows that numerous systems began to shut down, and Caves said “uh-oh” and “we are dead stick.” Id. at 33. Davis had pulled the throttle past the stops to “CUTOFF” which shut down both engines. To move the throttle lever into “CUTOFF, ” Davis had to pull the throttle lever all the way down and pull up on finger locks that would have prevented the throttle lever from moving into the “CUTOFF” position. Dkt. # 94-8, at 3.

         During normal flight conditions, the aircraft uses two engine-driven generators to supply electricity to the aircraft, but the aircraft also has a main battery and a standby battery to provide electrical power in emergency situations. Id. at 6. The generators shut down when the engines are shut off, and the power supply for the aircraft switches from the generators to the main battery. Dkt. # 94-12, at 9. The aircraft has a battery switch that can be set in “ON” or “STANDBY” position. Dkt. # 94-5. at 2. Placing the switch in the “ON” position selects the main battery, and moving the switch to “STANBY” selects the standby battery. Dkt. # 94-12, at 12. The battery switch should be placed in the “ON” position during normal flight operations, because the main battery is not drained when the generators are providing electrical power. Dkt. # 94-8, at 7. The standby battery is used only when there is no other power source, and the POM states that the standby battery will supply 150 watts of power for at least 30 minutes. Id. Electrical power to many components is cut off when the aircraft is operating under battery power, because it is necessary to conserve power to operate components more critical for landing the aircraft. Id.

         The CVR cut off approximately two minutes after Davis shut off the engines. Dkt. # 94-9. After the CVR stopped recording, Caves was able to restart the left engine, and the Premier 390 is designed to fly with only one engine. Dkt. # 94-8, at 12. In order to restart the left engine, Caves was required to use engine start and ignition switches powered by the pilot's essential bus, part of the electrical load distribution system. Dkt. # 94-12, at 9. Experts for plaintiffs and defendants also heard a sound on the CVR that has been identified as the starter motor used to restart the engines, and the starter motor receives power from the pilot's essential bus. Dkt. # 94-12, at 9; Dkt. # 94-14, at 12. The starter motor must have been functional, because Caves was able to restart the left engine. Id. There is no dispute that many other components of the aircraft that receive power from the pilot's essential bus were functioning after Davis cut off the engines. Dkt. # 94, at 17-18; Dkt.

         # 158, at 14. Even though Caves was able to restart the left engine, he did not reset the left electrical generator and the aircraft was operating on battery power. Dkt. # 94-12, at 12. Plaintiffs' expert, Frank Graham, believes that Caves moved the battery switch from “ON” to “STANDBY” based on an eight second interruption in electrical power noted on the CVR transcript. Dkt. # 94-18, at 2. Defendants' expert, Robert Winn, provided four possible reasons for the interruption of electrical power, one of which is moving the battery switch into the “STANDBY” position. Dkt. # 119-7, at 7-8. The instructions for operating the aircraft after a dual engine failure require that the battery switch be kept in the “ON” position when attempting to restart the engines and generators, but the battery switch was found to be in the “STANDBY” position in the aircraft wreckage. Dkt. # 94-6, at Dkt. # 94-10, at 7. Plaintiffs dispute that this evidence necessarily means that Caves placed the battery switch in the “STANDBY” position, because the switch could have moved during the crash. Dkt. # 158-2, at 10.

         Caves was able to navigate the aircraft to the South Bend airport and he attempted to land, but air traffic control (ATC) directed Caves to pull up because his main landing gear was not extended. Dkt. # 94-6, at 3. Caves pulled up and attempted a second landing, but he again attempted to land with only the nose landing gear extended. Id. There is no evidence of what actions Caves took between the first and second landing attempts, and it is unknown if Caves took any steps to deploy the main landing gear before attempting to land a second time. During the second landing attempt, the aircraft bounced several times after touching down on the runway, and Caves attempted to take the aircraft back into the air. Id. The aircraft entered a “nose low, rolling descent into a nearby residential community.” Id. Caves and Davis died as a result of blunt-force injuries sustained in the crash, and Rodgers and Evans were injured.

         Beechcraft prepared an Airplane Flight Manual (AFM), the POM, and a Maintenance Manual for the Premier 390, and the AFM must be on the aircraft at all times. Dkt. # 94-10, at 2. The AFM has been approved by the FAA and it contains all information required to be provided to a pilot under 14 C.F.R. Part 23. Id. at 1. The AFM contains a checklist for restarting an engine following a shutdown, whether for training purposes or from mechanical difficulty. Id. at 5. The AFM also includes a checklist for a failure of both electrical generators. Id. at 7. Plaintiffs dispute that the “Engine Shutdown or Failure in Flight” was the appropriate checklist that should have been followed by Caves to restart the engines or generators, and plaintiffs argue that the “Air Start” checklist should have been used. Dkt. # 158, at 18. Plaintiffs' argument is supported only by the expert opinions of their piloting expert, Michael Haider. Based on the accident wreckage, it is not clear that Caves put the generator or engine ignition switches in the correct positions for restarting the engines pursuant to the “Engine Shutdown” or “Dual Generator Failure” checklists. The AFM also includes instructions for deploying the alternate landing gear in the event that the landing gear cannot be lowered by the electrical system. Dkt. # 94-10, at 18-19.

         The POM describes the aircraft's electrical distribution system as follows:

DC ELECTRICAL LOAD DISTRIBUTION
The DC distribution system consists of two linked generator bus systems, one essential bus system, one hot battery bus system and a standby battery bus system. The bussing system is cross-tied together with one bus-tie contactor. The power distribution box consists of power relays, bus bars, fuses, current transformers, load meter shunts, and circuit breakers. It receives input power from the external power source, the generators, and the main battery. The power distribution box then distributes the input power to the right main bus, left main bus, essential bus, non-essential bus, standby bus, and the hot battery bus.

Dkt. # 94-8, at 6. The electrical buses supply power to essential components of the aircraft, and the pilot's essential bus and the co-pilot's essential bus provide power to different components. Id. at 8-9. In 2009, Beechcraft issued Service Bulletin 24-3868 (SB 24-3868) to repair the hydraulic shutoff valve installation, and the repair required significant changes to the circuit breaker panel. Dkt. # 94-22; Dkt. # 94-23. The wiring aspect of the repair was accomplished by means of a repair kit assembled by Beechcraft, and the kit was identified as Kit 390-3622-0003. Dkt. # 94-22, at 1; Dkt. # 94-24. HBGCS performed the repairs required by SB 24-3868 on Caves' aircraft, including installation of Kit 390-3622-0003. Dkt. # 94-7, at 12-13. To perform the repair, HBGCS had to remove and reattach a service wire from the circuit breaker on the pilot's essential bus. Dkt. # 94-14, at 3. Plaintiffs' electrical expert, John Bloomfield, opines that a screw connecting the service wire was not properly tightened to the pilot's essential bus. Id. at 2. The Kit instructions require that the screw be tightened to six to nine pounds of torque and that torque seal be applied. Dkt. # 94-24. Before the crash on March 17, 2013, there is evidence of only one incident of any interruption of electrical power to the electrical components of the aircraft. Rick Frie was a passenger on the subject aircraft about two weeks before the crash while Caves was flying the aircraft from Tulsa to Memphis. Dkt. # 94-28, at 2. They flew through a thunderstorm and several displays blacked out, and Frie believed that Caves' behavior suggested that this had not happened before. Id. Many of the electrical components that blacked out during the flight to Memphis do not receive electricity from the pilot's essential bus. Dkt. # 94-29, at 2. Caves took the aircraft to Christiansen Aviation on March 12, 2013, but he did not report that the aircraft had any electrical problems. Dkt. # 158-13, at 2-3.

         The main landing gear of the aircraft will operate when the electrical generators are not functioning, because the main battery will provide enough power to lower the landing gear. Dkt. # 94-10, at 8-9. The aircraft has an alternate landing gear extension system (hereinafter “alternate landing gear”) to deploy the landing gear without electrical power. Dkt. # 94-8, at 4-5. The alternate landing gear handle is a red, T-shaped handle, marked “PULL, ” and it is located under the pilot's yoke. Dkt. # 94-5, at 3. In the accident wreckage, the alternate landing gear handle was found partially pulled out and bent toward the instrument panel. Dkt. # 94-6, at 8. The FAA approved the procedure for lowering the landing gear using the alternate landing gear handle. Dkt. # 94-10, at 18. The aircraft has three green indicator lights that turn on when the landing gear is locked into place, but the green indicator lights do not function if the aircraft is operating only on standby battery power. Dkt. # 94-8, at 4; Dkt. # 94-10, at 10. Beechcraft performed production testing on each Premier 390 aircraft and required that the pull force necessary to pull the alternate landing gear handle was less than 60 pounds. Dkt. # 94-34, at 10. The subject aircraft had a maximum handle pull force of 53.7 pounds when it was inspected by Beechcraft before it was placed in the stream of commerce. Dkt. # 94-35. The Maintenance Manual provides a procedure for testing the alternate landing gear when the aircraft is inspected following sale by Beechcraft, and the maximum pull force to pass inspection is 64 pounds. Dkt. # 94-21, at 2. The subject aircraft was not due to have the alternate landing gear inspected until it reached 600 flight hours, and it had 457.5 flight hours at the time of the crash. Dkt. # 94-6, at 4; Dkt. # 94-38, at 2.

         It is unknown what pull force was used by Caves in his attempt to pull out the alternate landing gear handle, but a report issued by the NTSB found that the handle was pulled out approximately one and a half inches. Dkt. # 158-15, at 27. Plaintiffs' experts tested the pull force needed to pull the alternate landing gear handle on three exemplar aircraft, and the experts opine that the pull force needed could be as much as 120 pounds. Dkt. # 94-25, at 45; Dkt. # 94-40, at 31-32. Plaintiffs claim that this pull force is excessive, but their experts were always able to fully pull out the alternate landing gear handle. Id. Plaintiffs' experts opine that debris in the landing gear bay could add to the pull force, but their reports do not show that they inspected the exemplar aircraft or the wreckage of RB-226 to determine if debris added to the pull force. Id. Beechcraft had not previously received any reports that a pilot was unable to lock the landing gear into place using the alternate landing gear handle. Dkt. # 94-30.

         In the event of a dual generator failure, the AFM directs a pilot to initiate an emergency descent and refer to the procedures for operating the aircraft with the essential bus only. Dkt. # 149-1, at 3. Operating the aircraft with the essential bus only requires use of the main battery. Dkt. # 94-10, at 7-9. Plaintiffs' piloting expert, Haider, testified in his deposition that he had experience flying a Premier 390 aircraft, and there were “instances” when simply resetting the generator switch was not sufficient to restart an electrical generator. Dkt. # 149-2, at 3. However, he was able to restart the generator by using a different procedure. Id. Haider testified that the correct procedure to restart the engines following a dual engine shutdown was the air start checklist, and the dual generator failure checklist should not have been used. Id. Haider acknowledged that the air start checklist would not have directed Caves to turn the generator switch to the “OFF” position. During his deposition, Haider did not offer any opinion that the instructions in air start checklist were incorrect or defective. Id.

         On March 16, 2015, Rodgers and Evans filed this case alleging claims of negligence against HBGCS and Beechcraft and a manufacturer's products liability claim against Beechcraft. Dkt. # 2. Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging the same substantive claims. Dkt. # 28. In the amended complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the aircraft was defective due to “electrical failures and improper design of the alternate landing gear extension system” and that these defects existed from the time the aircraft was manufactured. Id. at 9. On June 20, 2016, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (Dkt. # 94) and, on the same day, plaintiffs filed a motion (Dkt. # 93) seeking leave to file a second amended complaint. The Court noted the timing of plaintiffs' motion to amend and found that plaintiffs were seeking to introduce a new theory of product defect, but the Court determined that defendants would not be prejudiced by allowing plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint. Dkt. # 128. In the second amended complaint, plaintiffs added a theory of product defect based on the “deficient and defective abnormal procedures in the [AFM] for Air Start (resetting the generators).” Dkt. # ...


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