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Carty v. Beech Aircraft Corp.

decided: May 21, 1982.

JAMES CARTY, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF RITA DAVIS CONNOR, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE, HEIRS AND SURVIVORS OF SAID DECEDENT, AND CORNELIUS DUPIE, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF MAYMOND DUPIE, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE, HEIRS AND SURVIVORS OF SAID DECEDENT, AND SADIE BURNETT SMITH, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF ANTHONY SMITH, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE, HEIRS AND SURVIVORS OF SAID DECEDENT, AND ELKIN ALFRED CARTY, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF VIRGILE CLEMENTINA CARTY, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE, HEIRS AND SURVIVORS OF SAID DECEDENT
v.
BEECH AIRCRAFT CORPORATION, A CORPORATION; AVCO-LYCOMING, A CORPORATION; THE BENDIX CORPORATION, A CORPORATION; AND HERMAN LLOYD, AS THE PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF CLAYTON LLOYD, DECEASED, D/B/A VALLEY AIR SERVICE; LENA LLOYD, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF CLAYTON LLOYD, DECEASED, V. BEECH AIRCRAFT CORPORATION, AVCO-LYCOMING AND THE BENDIX CORPORATION BEECH AIRCRAFT CORPORATION, AVCO-LYCOMING AND THE BENDIX CORPORATION, APPELLANTS



ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DIVISION OF ST. THOMAS AND ST. JOHN

Before Hunter, Van Dusen and Sloviter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Sloviter

Opinion OF THE COURT

These are appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) from an interlocutory order of the District Court of the Virgin Islands denying appellants' motions to dismiss the complaints in these wrongful death actions on the grounds of lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction. For the reasons which follow, we affirm the order of the District Court denying the motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but reverse the order denying the motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

I.

BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the crash of an airplane on December 24, 1977 while it was en route to Anguilla, British West Indies, from St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, in which the pilot and all of the passengers were killed. The aircraft was owned and operated by Valley Air Service, a commuter airline serving several Caribbean Islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, under the sole proprietorship of Clayton Lloyd, the pilot on the fatal flight, and came down in the area of St. Maarten, in Dutch territorial waters. Two wrongful death actions, now consolidated, were filed in the District Court of the Virgin Islands as a result of the crash.*fn1 In the first action, the personal representatives of five of the deceased passengers brought suit against the personal representative of Clayton Lloyd, doing business as Valley Air Service; Beech Aircraft Corp., the manufacturer of the aircraft; Avco-Lycoming, the manufacturer of the plane's engines; and The Bendix Corporation, the manufacturer of certain engine components. Valley Air cross-claimed against the other defendants in that action. In the second action, the pilot's widow, Lena Lloyd, brought suit as his personal representative against Beech, Avco-Lycoming, and Bendix.

The claims against Beech, Avco-Lycoming, and Bendix are predicated on two theories of liability: negligent design and manufacture of the aircraft, its engines or its fuel injector devices, and failure to warn of the defect. Beech, Avco-Lycoming and Bendix moved to dismiss the complaints and Valley Air's cross-claim on the grounds of lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The District Court denied the motions to dismiss. The court held that it had subject matter jurisdiction under 48 U.S.C. § 1406 and under 4 V.I.C. § 32, that personal jurisdiction over the moving defendants was conferred by the Virgin Islands long arm statute, 5 V.I.C. § 4903, and that "the moving defendants have sufficient "minimum contacts' with the forum, such that application of the long arm statute to them does not violate their due process rights." Carty v. Beech Aircraft Corp., No. 78-96, joint app. at 3-4 (D.V.I. Jan. 19, 1981).*fn2 The District Court certified its order denying the motions to dismiss pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and we granted leave to appeal.

II.

SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

The original briefs of the parties and the supplemental briefs directed to the issue of subject matter jurisdiction evince some confusion as to the basis of the District Court's subject matter jurisdiction to hear this matter. In part, the uncertainty may stem from the unusual circumstances of this case, in which suit has been filed in the Virgin Islands arising out of an accident which happened elsewhere on behalf of decedents who resided elsewhere. Thus, it is first necessary to establish the basis on which the District Court has power to entertain this litigation. Analysis of the jurisdiction of the District Court must be made in light of historical perspective and the applicable authorities, including statutes and cases.

The United States acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1916. The convention between the United States and Denmark proclaimed by the President on January 25, 1917 did not address the issue of the judicial system to be in effect in the Virgin Islands. Shortly thereafter, on March 3, 1917, Congress enacted "An Act To provide a temporary government for the West Indian Islands acquired by the United States from Denmark," which provided that "except as hereinafter provided, all military, civil, and judicial powers necessary to govern the West Indian Islands acquired from Denmark shall be vested in a governor and in such person or persons as the President may appoint, and shall be exercised in such manner as the President shall direct until Congress shall provide for the government of said islands." Act of March 3, 1917, ch. 171, § 1, 39 Stat. 1132. Section 2 thereof provided in part:

That until Congress shall otherwise provide, ... local laws (in effect at the time of proclamation of the Convention) shall remain in force and effect in said islands, and the same shall be administered by the civil officials and through the local judicial tribunals established in said islands .... The jurisdiction of the judicial tribunals of said islands shall extend to all judicial proceedings and controversies in said islands to which the United States or any citizen thereof may be a party.

Act of March 3, 1917, ch. 171, § 2, 39 Stat. 1132.*fn3

The "local judicial tribunals" consisted primarily of the District Court. Its "general and original jurisdiction" was set forth in municipal ordinances enacted by the Colonial Council for St. Thomas and St. John and the Colonial Council of St. Croix in 1921, which provided:

Section 1. The Judicial power of the Virgin Islands of the United States is hereby declared to be vested in a District Court, Police Courts and Juvenile Courts and a District Court Commissioner.

Section 2. The District Court is a court of general and original jurisdiction in all civil, criminal, admiralty, equity, insolvency and probate matters and causes, unless jurisdiction is conferred on some other court, in which event the jurisdiction of the District Court is concurrent.

Ordinance enacted by Colonial Council for St. Thomas and St. John, Dec. 8, 1921; Ordinance enacted by Colonial Council of St. Croix, Aug. 6, 1921. The police courts, which were apparently not courts of record, had non-exclusive jurisdiction over minor criminal and civil matters.*fn4

On June 22, 1936, Congress enacted the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands. Section 25 provided:

The judicial power of the Virgin Islands shall be vested in a court to be designated "the District Court of the Virgin Islands" and in such court or courts of inferior jurisdiction as may have been or may hereafter be established by local law: Provided, That the legislative assembly may provide for the organization and conduct of a Superior Court of the Virgin Islands and may transfer from the district court to such Superior Court jurisdiction over any or all causes other than those arising under the laws of the United States. Appeals from the Superior Court shall be as provided by law in the case of appeals from the district court.

Act of June 22, 1936, ch. 699, § 25, 49 Stat. 1807.

Section 28 provided:

The district court shall have jurisdiction of-

(1) All criminal cases under the laws of the respective municipalities or under the laws of the United States applicable to the Virgin Islands;

(2) All cases in equity;

(3) All cases in ...


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