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Linfoot v. McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 16, 2015

GARY LINFOOT, and wife MARI LYN LINFOOT, and GREGORY COOPER Plaintiffs,
v.
MCDONNELL DOUGLAS HELICOPTER COMPANY, L-3 COMMUNICATIONS CORPORATION, KAMATICS CORPORATION, and DYNCORP INTERNATIONAL LLC Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

KEVIN H. SHARP, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendant McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company's ("MDHC") Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment based on the Tennessee Statute of Repose (Docket No. 111).[1] For the reasons set forth below, this Motion will be denied.

I. SUMMARY OF THE FACTS

In the final minutes of May 31, 2008, an AH-6M model helicopter (the "subject helicopter"), [2] piloted by Plaintiff Gary Linfoot, a Chief Warrant Officer (CW4) in the United States Army and member of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and his co-pilot Plaintiff Gregory Cooper, crashed during a mission south of Baghdad, Iraq. Plaintiffs allege the accident was caused by failure of a component of the engine-to-transmission driveshaft, which in turn caused an immediate loss of power to the helicopter's rotors. The impact of the crash was aggravated by the failure of the crush box beneath the pilot's seat to yield and effectively absorb the shock of the hard landing. The crush box had been filled with avionics equipment during a prior modification of the aircraft.

The subject helicopter had been "substantially rebuilt" a number of times since it was manufactured and delivered to the Army in 1981 by MDHC's predecessor, Hughes Helicopter (Docket No. 128 at 1). It had been based on the Fort Campbell, Kentucky airfield since at least September 1982.

As a result of the accident, Plaintiffs Gary Linfoot and Gregory Cooper suffered severe injuries, including spinal trauma, which required multiple surgeries. Mr. Linfoot's injuries left him permanently paralyzed. Mari Lyn Linfoot, Mr. Linfoot's wife, is also a Plaintiff in this action. Their Fourth Amended Complaint alleges claims of negligence, violation of the Tennessee Products Liability Act, and breach of warranty (Docket No. 138 at 4-7).[3]

Movant in the current matter before the Court is Defendant MDHC, a Delaware corporation with its principle place of business in Illinois, which manufactured the subject helicopter. DynCorp, a Delaware corporation with its principle place of business in Virginia, is also a Defendant by virtue of its role as a Government contractor charged with maintaining and servicing the helicopter. The Parties dispute what role Defendants and other actors played in subsequent modifications made to the subject helicopter since it was originally delivered to the Army, including modifications related to the Mission Enhanced Little Bird ("MELB") program.[4]

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A party may obtain summary judgment if the evidence establishes there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Covington v. Knox County School Sys. , 205 F.3d 912, 914 (6th Cir. 2000). A genuine issue exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing all justifiable inferences in his or her favor. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). However, the nonmoving party must rely on more than "[c]onclusory assertions, supported only by Plaintiff's own opinions." Arendale v. City of Memphis , 519 F.3d 587, 605 (6th Cir. 2008). Rather, Plaintiffs must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Harvey v. Campbell County, Tenn. , 453 Fed.Appx. 557, 561 (6th Cir. 2011).

A. Procedural History

MDHC first filed a Motion for Summary Judgment based on the Tennessee Statute of Repose on March 3, 2010, before the initiation of formal discovery (Docket No. 62).[5] Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition asserted that genuine issues of material fact remained (Docket No. 84). The Army had not yet responded to the Parties' Joint Touhy Request of October 8, 2009, nor had Parties had the opportunity to inspect the wreckage (Docket No. 84). See Rimmer v. Holder , 700 F.3d 246, 262 (6th Cir. 2012) (explaining a Touhy request is "a common tool for obtaining federal documents" during discovery). Also, for the first time, Plaintiffs introduced a choice of law question and claimed that under the Second Restatement's "most significant relationship test" adopted by Tennessee, other jurisdictions had more significant connections to the Parties and the dispute.

The Court denied MDHC's Motion for Summary Judgment without prejudice, concluding that further proof was required regarding "whether under Tennessee's choice of law principles... Tennessee substantive law or the law or a different forum should apply to Plaintiff's claims." (Docket No. 91 at 15). Shortly after, the Court granted Plaintiff's Unopposed Motion to Stay Discovery (Docket No. 93) pending the Army's fulfillment of the Parties' joint Touhy request (Docket No. 96). When the Army had substantially completed its response to the Touhy request, the Court lifted the stay and set a discovery deadline for 120 days later (Docket No. 184). This deadline has since been continued twice on joint motions of the Parties due to complications in obtaining further discovery from the Army (Docket Nos. 196 & 201).

MDHC filed a renewed Motion for Summary Judgment on March 28, 2012, and once again asserted that all Plaintiffs' claims against it were extinguished by the ten-year statute of repose in the Tennessee Products Liability Act (TPLA). See TENN. CODE ANN. ยง 29-28-103(3) (West 2014). MDHC noted that Plaintiffs themselves invoked the TPLA and, even if they had not, Tennessee had the most significant relationship under the State's choice of law regime.

Plaintiffs responded that the statute of repose posed no obstacle to their claims because modifications to the subject helicopter after 1999 rendered it a "new product" for the purposes of the TPLA. In any event, Tennessee was not the State with the most significant relationship to the dispute. Instead, Arizona, where Plaintiffs claim MDHC designed, developed, and tested modifications that were later applied to the subject helicopter pursuant to the MELB program, or ...


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