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Davidson v. Fairchild Controls Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 5, 2018

JANA DAVIDSON, Individually and on behalf of their minor children J.C.D. and K.S.D.; THOMAS FARMER; KENNETH DAVIDSON, Individually and on behalf of their minor children J.C.D. and K.S.D., Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
FAIRCHILD CONTROLS CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before WIENER, ELROD, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          LESLIE H. SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judge:

         Two of the plaintiffs were injured when oil from an airplane's air cycle machine leaked into the cabin, causing smoke and fumes to fill the cockpit during their flight. The plaintiffs brought suit against several defendants. The district court granted summary judgment to defendant Fairchild Controls Corporation on a design-defect claim due to a lack of adequate expert testimony that a feasible alternate design existed. It also dismissed the failure-to-warn claim because the plaintiffs were knowledgeable users. We AFFIRM.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On May 31, 2011, two employees of an aerospace and defense technology company embarked on a mission to determine the cause of fumes and smoke in one of the company's airplanes, a Twin Commander 690A. Prior to that flight, another pilot at the company, William O'Connor, complained that fumes and smoke had filled the cockpit when the Twin Commander 690A reached a cruising altitude. The company wanted the two employees, a pilot and a sensor operator, to fly the aircraft to determine if the fumes and smoke problem had been resolved.

         This problem with the Twin Commander 690A was already known by the plaintiffs, [1] who were the pilot, Thomas Farmer, and the sensor operator, Kenneth Davidson. Farmer had observed fumes and smoke on 50 prior flights and had repeatedly complained to the company about his concerns. He knew that the problem was because of an old air cycle machine ("ACM"), which was contaminating the air from leakage of oil. Farmer stated in his deposition that he had "recommended that the cause of the smoke and fumes, the air cycle machine unit, be replaced." Farmer was also aware of the negative health effects of the fumes and smoke, which released a chemical neurotoxin known as tricresyl phosphate. Farmer had visited several doctors concerning the damage to his health from experiencing smoke and fumes on prior flights.

         The second plaintiff, Davidson, also knew about the fumes and smoke problem in the Twin Commander 690A. He was warned about the risk of smoke and fumes in the cockpit by another pilot, who had experienced the smoke and fumes in the cockpit. Davidson also researched these risks on the Internet and emailed management with his concerns.

         Shortly after take-off on the relevant flight, the plaintiffs could smell the fumes and see the smoke, but they continued their mission. By the time they reached an altitude of 28, 000 feet, the smoke and fumes from the oil leakage were sufficiently severe that both plaintiffs experienced burning eyes, coughing, and difficulty breathing. They put on oxygen masks, began descending, depressurized the cabin upon reaching a lower altitude, and landed shortly thereafter. From take-off to landing, their flight was between 60 and 90 minutes. An inspection of the airplane after this flight revealed that oil was leaking from the oil bearings in the ACM and then escaping into the aircraft's cabin, creating smoke and fumes in the cockpit.

         The ACM in the Twin Commander 690A was made by Fairchild Controls Corporation. Although Fairchild had ceased manufacturing ACMs in the 1980s, it had retrofitted the ACM in the Twin Commander 690A in 2007. The ACM, a part of the aircraft's environmental control system, uses hot air produced by the aircraft's engines and recycles the air into the cabin after a cooling and pressurization process. This process was approved and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") to be used in the Twin Commander 690A.

         On May 30, 2014, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York based on diversity jurisdiction. The initial complaint was filed against many defendants, including Fairchild. By March 2015, all of the defendants were dismissed from the case except Fairchild. The New York district court held that it lacked personal jurisdiction over Fairchild and transferred the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas instead of dismissing the action. In September 2016, the Texas district court granted Fairchild's motion for summary judgment.

         The district court rejected the design-defect claim because the plaintiffs failed to prove than an alternative design was technologically and economically feasible. The district court found no merit to the failure-to-warn claim because the plaintiffs were knowledgeable users, which barred their recovery on a failure-to-warn theory. The plaintiffs timely appealed. It is uncontested that New York law applies to the resolution of the issues presented on appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         The standard of review on summary judgment is de novo. United States v. Lawrence, 276 F.3d 193, 195 (5th Cir. 2001). The court should grant summary judgment when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is ...


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