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Robinson v. Hartzell Propeller

July 6, 2006

MICHAEL ROBINSON, INDIVIDUALLY, AND AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF JENNIFER ROBINSON AND MATTHEW ROBINSON; WENDY ROBINSON, INDIVIDUALLY, AND AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF SARAH KELLEY AND SAMANTHA KELLEY
v.
HARTZELL PROPELLER, INC.; NEW ENGLAND PROPELLER SERVICE, INC.; COLUMBIA AIRCRAFT SERVICE, INC.; TEXTRON LYCOMING RECIPROCATING ENGINE DIVISION, A DIVISION OF AVCO CORPORATION; TEXTRON, INC.; AVCO CORPORATION HARTZELL PROPELLER, INC., APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 01-cv-05240) District Judge: Honorable Jan E. DuBois.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Submitted Under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) June 12, 2006

Before: FISHER, GREENBERG and LOURIE,*fn1 Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

In this complex products liability case involving the tragic crash of a small passenger aircraft, we consider primarily the following issue of law: whether we may exercise appellate jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine to review the denial of a motion for summary judgment on the basis that a statute of repose was inapplicable. We conclude that the District Court's order does not fall under the collateral order doctrine and will accordingly dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction.

I.

On August 8, 1974, Hartzell manufactured the "Y"-shank aluminum propeller that eventually made its way onto a Mooney M20E aircraft. That aircraft was subsequently purchased by Wendy and Michael Robinson. Twenty-five years later, on August 15, 1999, the propeller fractured mid-flight, causing the aircraft to crash. Both Wendy and Michael suffered extensive injuries: Wendy suffered a broken back, breast bone, and left foot, while Michael fractured his spine, rendering him a paraplegic. The Robinsons thereafter brought suit against Hartzell under theories of negligence and products liability.*fn2

The General Aviation Revitalization Act ("GARA")*fn3 contains a statute of repose that generally bars suits against airplane manufacturers brought more than eighteen years after the delivery date to an initial purchaser of the aircraft. See 49 U.S.C. § 40101 note.*fn4 The Robinsons, however, allege that they are entitled to bring their suit under an exception to the GARA statute of repose because Hartzell made several material misrepresentations in connection with obtaining a type certificate for the propeller at issue from the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA").*fn5 Id.

Federal law requires propeller manufacturers to obtain a type certificate from the FAA. See id. § 44704. The purpose of that process is to ensure that the propeller has been designed and manufactured properly, performs properly, and meets FAA minimum standards. See id. Some manufacturers are able to grant themselves a type certificate through the FAA's Delegated Opinion Authority ("DOA") process. DOA status grants to a designated engineering representative ("DER") the ability to "assume the FAA's role and certify a part." (App. 16-17, 373.) Following certification, an entity with DOA also "is responsible to ensure that the product design is in accordance with the regulations and has no characteristics which may detract from flight safety." Service difficulties, such as a failure, malfunction, or defect in any part, including "propeller blade . . . structural failure," are to be "reviewed, reported, and resolved." 14 C.F.R. § 21.3(c)(5).

In 1963, Hartzell submitted an application for type certification to the FAA for the propeller and aircraft combination at issue -- the HC-C2YK-1/7666-2 Hartzell propeller installed on the Lycoming IO-360-AIA powered Mooney M20E airplane.*fn6 In connection with its initial application, Hartzell conducted a vibration test of the propeller/engine/aircraft combination the week of July 8, 1963. That test measured the stresses (measured in pounds per square inch (psi)) placed on the propeller at different speeds (measured in revolutions per minute (rpm)) at four different flight conditions: (1) take-off/climb at full throttle; (2) level flight at full throttle; (3) level flight with throttle set at 24-inch manifold pressure; and (4) static flight at full throttle. (App. 247-48.) With regard to these tests, the report stated the following:

The peak stress at 2230 RPM reached a value of 4800 psi for the 24 inch Hg manifold setting, which is approximately the allowable value. Since this engine has no dampers which can wear and cause higher stresses, the probability of this value being reached or exceeded in service seems remote. There appears to be no necessity to placard against operation in the 2200-2300 RPM range.

****

The HC-C2YK/7666-2 propeller is considered satisfactory vibrationwise when installed on the IO-360 Lycoming engine without restrictions.

(App. 244-45.)

The Robinsons contend that this statement in the report contains three misrepresentations. First, the Robinsons contend that the peak stress was not approximately equivalent to the allowable value, but rather exceeded the allowable value. The Robinsons cite to a set of graphs that were contained in Engineering Report No. 213 that demonstrate that allowable vibratory stress limits were exceeded at three different points.*fn7 Second, the Robinsons contend that the lack of vibration dampers on the Lycoming engine would increase, rather than decrease, the stress on the propeller. They point to a 1972 engineering report in which Hartzell recommended "the use of [a] dampered engine" to decrease the chances of propeller failure. (App. 553-54.)*fn8 Finally, the Robinsons argue that there was a necessity to placard against operation at certain speeds because vibratory peak stresses exceeded FAA permissible limits. When the type certification was first issued, the type certification data sheet included a note requiring owners of the Mooney M20E to mark their tachometers between 2000 and 2350 rpm. Because of some early propeller tip failures, the ...


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