Monday, March 26, 2018

Eleventh Circuit Won't Take Appeal Over Navy Aircraft Crash: North American Rockwell T-39N Sabreliner, 165513

Nos. 16-15541; 17-10545; 16-90014
D.C. Docket No. 3:12-cv-00009-MCR-CJK

Law360 (March 22, 2018, 8:06 PM EDT) -- The Eleventh Circuit on Thursday refused to consider an intermediate appeal in a wrongful death suit against an L3 Technologies unit over a Navy training flight crash, saying L3 had not shown that the purported implication of sensitive Navy decisions in the case required immediate review.

L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace LLC had argued that Kimberly Nice’s wrongful death suit over her husband’s death in a Navy training flight involves sensitive Navy decisions. That meant the company’s appeal over a district court's decision not to dismiss the case must be heard immediately or risk implicating separation of powers issues, it said. But the company was mistaken, the three-judge panel ruled in a precedential decision.

“The defendants argue that without an immediate appeal their comparative fault defense will require the jury to second-guess sensitive Navy decisions, which harms the public’s interest in separation of powers, and a later appeal will not undo that damage,” the panel said. “That argument fails.”

Following a 2010 plane crash that killed everyone on board a Navy training jet, including her husband Shawn, a Navy navigator in training, Nice sued L-3 Vertex — a unit of what was L-3 Communications and is now defense giant L3 Technologies — and the estate of Charles McDaniel, a retired Navy veteran and Vertex employee who was piloting the crashed plane as a civilian contractor.

An investigation showed that a malfunction caused an inadvertent rudder movement, which McDaniel attempted to counter by moving the rudder in the opposite direction, breaking the tail of the plane apart and causing the crash. Nice alleged McDaniel’s response to the malfunction was negligent.

L-3 and McDaniel’s estate raised a defense of comparative fault by the Navy, attempting to shift some or all of the blame for the crash. They argued that the aircraft the Navy had selected — a T-39N Sabreliner, used to train flight officers on radar navigation and radar intercept procedures — as well as the chosen mission speed and altitude, and oversights in its relevant training manual all contributed to the crash.

To weigh that issue, however, would require a jury to evaluate sensitive Navy decisions, meaning the case would have to be dismissed due to involving a “political question” that courts don’t have the jurisdiction to hear, the defendants claimed. The district court, however, found that Nice’s negligence claim hinged on McDaniel’s reaction to a malfunction, which had nothing to do with the Navy’s decisions.

That prompted the defendants to appeal under the collateral order doctrine, allowing for appeals of a “small category of decisions” that don’t end litigation, but nonetheless are considered effectively final and resolve important questions outside of the actual merits of a case.

Without immediate appeal, the jury in the case would have to second-guess sensitive Navy decisions, harming the public interest in the separation of powers, the defendants said, claiming that a appeal later in the case would not be able to undo any damage caused.

But under the Supreme Court’s 2009 Mohawk Industries Inc. v. Carpenter decision, which also touched on the collateral order doctrine, courts are not supposed to engage in an “individualized jurisdictional inquiry” to determine whether a ruling fits within the doctrine, the circuit court panel said.

And that sort of inquiry is exactly what the defendants had asked for, with their arguments turning on the Navy’s choice of aircraft, mission parameters and training manual instructions, all facts that are specific to the case, according to the panel.

Instead, courts must look to whether a “class of claims, taken as a whole, can be adequately vindicated” outside of an immediate appeal when weighing whether to take an appeal under the doctrine. And the defendants’ jurisdictional argument can be raised again after a final judgment, the panel found, saying their claims about potential harm in the meantime were irrelevant to the doctrinal determination.

The panel also explored whether there was an alternative statutory basis for granting interlocutory appeal, for instance if the case presented a “pure question of law,” as the defendants had argued, after claiming that the underlying facts in their case were undisputed and sat “neatly and clearly atop the record.”

But “the issue is neither neat nor clear from any vantage point in the record,” the panel said.

The basic historical facts of the underlying crash — what, where and when — may be undisputed, but the question of who caused the crash is “hotly" disputed, meaning the case actually involved a mixed issue of law and fact, according to the panel, which sent the case back to the district court.

Counsel for Nice didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday. A representative for L-3 wasn’t immediately available.

Circuit Judges Edward E. Carnes and Joel F. Dubina and District Judge Leslie J. Abrams, sitting by designation, sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.

Nice is represented by Bruce J. McKee, Christopher S. Randolph Jr. and Michael D. Ermert of Hare Wynn Newell & Newton LLP, Daniel D. Barks of the Law Offices of Daniel D. Barks and J. Alistair McKenzie of McKenzie Law Firm PA.

L-3 is represented by Jessie C. Fontenot Jr. and Jack M. Strauch of Strauch Green & Mistretta PC.

The case is Nice v. L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace LLC et al., case numbers 16-15541, 16-90014 and 17-10545, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Case Information

Case Title
Kimberly Nice, et al v. L-3 Communications Vertex Aer

Case Number

Appellate - 11th Circuit

Nature of Suit
3360 Other Personal Injury

Date Filed
August 17, 2016

Case Title
Kimberly Nice, et al v. L-3 Communications Vertex Aer, et al

Case Number

Appellate - 11th Circuit

Nature of Suit
3360 Other Personal Injury

Date Filed
February 6, 2017

Law Firms
Hare Wynn

L3 Technologies Inc.
Mohawk Industries Inc.

Judge Analytics
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Leslie J. Abrams

Original article can be found here ➤

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