Fitzpatrick & Hunt Obtain Defense Verdict in $46 Million Helicopter Case.

A San Diego jury deliberated for 80 minutes before returning a verdict in favor of defendant Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation which was facing a request for $46 million in damages in a product liability lawsuit involving a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter. Sikorsky manufactured and sold the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter to the Navy in 1990. James W. Hunt and Christopher S. Hickey from Fitzpatrick & Hunt’s Los Angeles office defended Sikorsky at trial.

On March 17, 2011, Marine Corps Sergeant Alexis Fontalvo was acting as an aerial observer on a CH-53E helicopter training mission out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (North of San Diego). Prior to take-off, the helicopter’s left main landing gear experienced an uncommanded retraction after Sgt. Fontalvo forcibly and inappropriately removed a landing gear safety pin from the left main gear. The helicopter fell on Sgt. Fontalvo, resulting in his death. A landing gear safety pin is designed to mechanically prevent an aircraft’s landing gear from retracting while the aircraft is on the ground, but is removed prior to flight so that the landing gear can be retracted after takeoff. According to the Navy’s investigation report, the utility hydraulic module, which operates to extend and retract the landing gear, had been inappropriately energized to command retraction of the landing gear because of an errant transfer of current between two deteriorated, bare wires. Thus, at the time of the accident, only the landing gear pins were preventing gear retraction, and when Sgt. Fontalvo succeeded in forcing the left landing gear safety pin out, the gear retracted.

On 25 January 2013, the son/heir of Sgt. Fontalvo brought suit in California Superior Court, San Diego County against Sikorsky. Fitzpatrick & Hunt removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. In 2014, plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, substituting plaintiff’s mother, Tashina Amador, as his guardian ad litem. The Second Amended Complaint also joined Ms. Amador’s minor daughter from a previous relationship as a plaintiff on the basis that Sgt. Fontalvo had provided more than 50% of the minor’s support.

Plaintiffs’ complaint included wrongful death and survivor claims and alleged strict liability, negligence, and failure to warn against Sikorsky. Prior to trial, plaintiffs’ survivor claim (their sole basis for seeking punitive damages) and failure to warn claims were dismissed. The Court however denied Sikorsky’s motion for summary judgment as to plaintiffs’ strict liability and negligence claims.

At trial, plaintiffs argued that the degraded, bare wires were the result of a manufacturing defect (the improper installation of the subject wires) and design defect (the improper configuration of the utility hydraulic module which allowed the subject wires to come in contact). Plaintiffs presented two technical experts to support their claims. However, on cross-examination both expert had to admit they actually had no experience with the CH-53E helicopter and also did not even understand how the utility hydraulic module is orientated within the helicopter. Plaintiffs’ experts, in fact, presented a demonstrative to the jury in which the utility hydraulic module was installed backwards.

Defense counsel argued that the degraded wires were the result of the government’s use of a certain type of wire called “Kapton,” which is known to degrade when exposed to moisture, poor maintenance practices by the Marine Corps, and Fontalvo’s improper removal of the landing gear safety pin. The defense was supported by expert testimony from an electrical engineer and a former Marine Corp staff sergeant with 18 years of experience maintaining CH-53E helicopters, as well as the video deposition testimony of several government witnesses who confirmed the problems associated with Kapton wiring, the poor wiring maintenance practices of Marine Corp maintainers, the Navy’s knowledge that by 2011 the wiring in the fleet of Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters had reach an extreme state of disrepair, and that Sikorsky had thrice recommended replacement of the CH-53E wiring. This recommendation was rejected by the Navy each time.

The jury trial for this matter commenced on May 14, 2018 and concluded on May 30, 2018. In closing arguments, plaintiffs’ counsel asked the jury to award $46 million. The jury was given the case at 9:13am on the morning of May 31, 2018. After one hour and 20 minutes of deliberations, the jury found in favor of Sikorsky. The jury rejected plaintiffs’ manufacturing defect and negligence claims. With regard to strict liability for design defects, the jury found, pursuant to California’s consumer expectation test, that the product did not perform as safely as its ordinary consumer would have expected. However, the jury then determined the benefits of the CH-53E design outweighed any risk and also that the product’s design was not a substantial factor in causing the Fontalvo accident. On June 20, 2018, the Court entered judgment in favor of Sikorsky with plaintiffs to recover nothing and Sikorsky to recover its costs from plaintiffs.