Government Contractor Defense Protects Helicopter Manufacturer

The Chinook helicopter was flying in Afghanistan.  Without warning, one of the helicopter's two engines flamed out.  The helicopter crashed.  Eight service personnel were killed and fourteen were severely injured.

The victims and their families sued the helicopter's various manufacturers, including Boeing, Honeywell and Goodrich.  They claimed that the helicopter's engine quit because of a defect in the design of the electronics that control the fuel flow to the engine. 

The Army agreed.  It's investigation concluded that the engine failed because of problems with the the engine's FADEC (Full Authority Digital Electronic Control) and DECU (Digital Electronic Control Unit). 

A federal court recognized that "the Chinook's engine obviously did not perform like it was supposed to."  Nonetheless, it tossed the case out of court, ruling that the manufacturers were protected from liability by the Government Contractor Defense.  That defense immunizes manufacturers from liability for defective products causing injury or death in those cases where the government approved the design that ended up being faulty.

The victims argued that the government didn't really approve the defendants' defective design, because the contract documents left the details of the design to the manufacturers' discretion. The contract documents provided:

Specific implementations used to describe the functional requirements throughout this document are for informational understanding only. Actual implementations used to meet these requirements will be at the discretion of the designer unless specifically stated otherwise.

The court rejected the argument.  Though the clause left some of the details to the manufacturers,  the government nonetheless approved the design.

The victims also argued that the manufacturers should have included in the helicopter's Operator's Manual a warning about the problems with the helicopter's design, since they were well aware of other failures that had resulted in accidents.  The court rejected that argument too, because the military had approved the manual's wording.

Military personnel were killed or injured, not by enemy fire, but by a defectively designed product that was manufactured by private industry for profit.  Yet, the manufacturers are permitted to turn their backs, and walk away,

The case is Getz v. Boeing.

Manufacturers of Military Aircraft and the Government Contractor Defense

A crew member injured by an aircraft's defective design may sue to hold the aircraft manufactuSuper Stallion Helicopterrer accountable.  At least he can when the aircraft involved in the accident was a civilian aircraft. If, however, the airplane or helicopter was a military aircraft, then the rules change.

A manufacturer who built an aircraft specifically for the military may be able to avoid liability to those injured by the aircraft's design by asserting the "government contractor defense."  That defense provides the manufacturer complete immunity from lawsuits. But the Supreme Court ruled in Boyle v.United Technologies that a manufacturer can take advantage of that defense only if it can prove all of the following things:

  1. That the US government specifically required or approved the design feature that caused the accident or injury; 
  2. That what the manufacturer built conformed to the specifications that the government approved, and
  3. That the manufacturer warned the government about any dangers in the design that the manufacturer knew about and that the government didn't.

If the manufacturer fails to prove all three of these things, then it may be sued just as a manufacturer of a civilian aircraft, and an injured crewmember is entitled to hold it accountable for any injuries the aircraft's design caused him.