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Fletcher v. Cessna Aircraft Co.

April 20, 2010

JANET FLETCHER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS THE EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF LYNN T. FLETCHER, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CESSNA AIRCRAFT COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, DEFENDANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-924-07.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Grall, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued November 10, 2009

Before Judges Wefing, Grall and Messano.

On February 25, 2005, Lynn T. Fletcher was piloting his Cessna Model 182P and died in a crash on takeoff from Greenwood Lake Airport in West Milford, New Jersey. The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the probable cause was an inadequate preflight inspection resulting in a total loss of engine power due to ice in the fuel system. The plane was manufactured in 1975 and delivered to its initial owner on April 11, 1975. This accident occurred nearly thirty years later. There is no evidence that defendant Cessna Aircraft Company (Cessna) serviced the aircraft, supplied a new part of any kind after delivery of the plane to the initial owner or provided any information to Fletcher after he purchased the aircraft from a prior owner in 1992.

Plaintiff Janet Fletcher, individually and as the executrix of her husband's estate, filed this suit alleging, among other things, that Cessna failed to warn about measures to prevent, correct and avoid a crash caused by ice in the aircraft's fuel system.*fn1 The trial judge denied Cessna's motion for dismissal on summary judgment, and we granted Cessna leave to appeal.

Cessna claims that this action against it is barred by the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, 49 U.S.C.A. § 40101 note (GARA). GARA is "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." Robinson v. Hartzell Propeller, Inc., 454 F.3d 163, 165 (3d Cir. 2006). GARA does not apply unless the action against the manufacturer is one "in its capacity as a manufacturer." GARA Section 2(a).

This appeal raises one question: Whether an action for damages based on Cessna's failure to warn about the potential for ice in the fuel system or to advise about measures available to avoid the condition and its catastrophic consequences is brought against Cessna "in its capacity as a manufacturer." We conclude that it is and reverse.

The question presented is one of statutory interpretation that is subject to de novo review. In re Liquidation of Integrity Ins. Co., 193 N.J. 86, 94 (2007). A court's primary goal when interpreting a statute is to determine the Legislature's intent. Higgins v. Pascack Valley Hosp., 158 N.J. 404, 418 (1999). The inquiry begins with the language of the statute, which generally controls when the meaning is clear. Ibid. When the statutory language is susceptible of different meanings, courts "seek to effectuate the fundamental purpose for which the legislation was enacted" and may look to legislative history to identify the intended goals. Klumb v. Bd. of Educ. of Manalapan-Englishtown Reg'l High Sch., 199 N.J. 14, 24-25 (2009) (internal quotations omitted); Daidone v. Buterick Bulkheading, 191 N.J. 557, 565-66 (2007). Where the statute is a federal law, the interest of comity and the benefits of uniform application require us to consider and give due deference to decisions of federal and state courts interpreting the statute. See Glukowsky v. Equity One, Inc., 180 N.J. 49, 64 (2004), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 1049, 125 S.Ct. 864, 160 L.Ed. 2d 770 (2005); S & R Assocs. v. Lynn Realty Corp., 338 N.J. Super. 350, 356 (App. Div. 2001); Blecker v. State, 323 N.J. Super. 434, 442 (App. Div. 1999); see also Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 43, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 1605-06, 104 L.Ed. 2d 29, 43 (1989).

GARA is an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. Its first substantive provision, Section 2, provides in pertinent part:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), no civil action for damages for death or injury to persons or damage to property arising out of an accident involving a general aviation aircraft may be brought against the manufacturer of the aircraft or the manufacturer of any new component, system, subassembly, or other part of the aircraft, in its capacity as a manufacturer if the accident occurred-

(1) after the applicable limitation period [eighteen years*fn2 ] beginning on-

(A) the date of delivery of the aircraft to its first purchaser or lessee, if delivered directly ...


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