Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott [2016] HCA 22

Legal Directions

Introduction

The High Court decision of Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott [2016] HCA 22 highlights to manufacturers the importance of providing comprehensive maintenance instructions with products. The High Court also confirms that, while the causation analysis in negligence and statutory product liability claims may require inferences where there are multiple possible causes of harm, establishing causation requires proof, on balance of probabilities, that a breach of duty of care (or product defect) caused the harm.

Facts

These proceedings concerned a claim by Mr McDermott against Robinson Helicopter Company (the Manufacturer) in negligence and pursuant to section 75AD of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) arising from a helicopter crash in 2004 that resulted in the pilot’s death and serious injuries to Mr McDermott. It was accepted by the parties that the crash was caused by failure of the helicopter’s forward flex plate, since one of the four bolts securing the flex plate had been assembled incorrectly and not tightened properly (the Defect), contrary to instructions in the helicopter’s Maintenance Manual (the Manual).

The flex plate and associated parts had been removed and reassembled some two months prior to the crash. After reassembly, but before the crash, the flex plate had also been subject to two ‘100 hourly’ inspections by licensed aircraft maintenance engineers (LAME)[i] and several routine pre-flight checks by pilots.

It was accepted by the parties that the Manufacturer did not cause the Defect and it was unknown who did. However, the focus in the proceedings was not when and how the Defect arose, but rather the adequacy of the inspection procedure contained in the Manual for detecting the Defect. Relevantly, the Manual instructed LAMEs to ‘verify the security’ of the flex plate during 100 hourly inspections. The Manual further required that the bolts be tightened to a specific setting and that a stripe of torque seal paint be applied to the bolts after installation, allowing for any subsequent bolt rotation to be detected visually.

Decision at trial

At first instance, the trial judge inferred five alternative factual possibilities as to the presence and condition of the torque stripe at the time the LAMEs conducted their inspections. The trial judge dismissed Mr McDermott’s claim, holding that the Manual’s instructions were sufficient to convey to a competent LAME that it was necessary to look for a torque stripe on each bolt and, if the stripe was missing, damaged or incomplete, to take steps to determine whether the bolt was correctly tightened, to
re-tighten the bolt, and then apply a fresh torque stripe.

Decision on appeal

The majority of the Court of Appeal held that the trial judge erred in his findings of fact and found there was only one possibility: the torque stripe was in a condition that would not have alerted the LAMEs to investigate the bolt further. The Court of Appeal held that the Manual was defective in failing to warn LAMEs that visual inspection of torque stripes may not be a sufficient indicator of bolt security due to fading or incorrect application and should have recommended physical testing of the bolts.

Decision of High Court

The High Court of Australia unanimously allowed the appeal, holding that the Court of Appeal had erred in interpreting the evidence and overturning the trial judge’s findings of fact without demonstrating they were ‘glaringly improbable’ or ‘contrary to compelling inference’. Further, the High Court found that the trial judge was correct in finding that Mr McDermott had not shown the Manual was defective or insufficient to discharge the Manufacturer’s duty of care. It was probable that, if the LAMEs had properly inspected the bolt in accordance with the Manual, they would have noticed the absence of a torque stripe, or a torque stripe in such a condition that would have alerted them to examine the bolt further.

While it was strictly unnecessary to address causation, the High Court briefly commented that the Court of Appeal had also erred in this regard. Of all the factual possibilities inferred, the Court of Appeal had held that one possibility was not covered by the Manual. However, it was not shown that this possibility was any more likely than the others, therefore a breach of duty in failing to provide for this one possibility in the Manual could not be considered causative of the crash. Further, the witness evidence pointed against the likelihood that the LAMEs would have been any more diligent in adhering to a recommendation in the Manual that they physically check the bolts than they were in visually examining the torque stripes for possible bolt rotation.

Practical implications for manufacturers

While the High Court ultimately found in favour of the Manufacturer, this protracted litigation serves as a strong reminder to manufacturers to ensure that maintenance instructions that accompany products:

  • Are clear and comprehensive, having regard to the reasonably foreseeable reader, whether it be a lay consumer or qualified maintenance person.
  • Particularly when relating to safety indicators, alert the reader to the risk of those indicators failing or that those indicators are inconclusive of the product’s safety. Manufacturers should avoid, as far as reasonably practicable, relying on the expertise of qualified maintenance persons to consider further inspections above and beyond what is expressly recommended by the manufacturer. After all, manufacturers are best placed to advise on all features of their products.

Legal implications

The High Court decision confirms the test for causation in negligence and statutory product liability claims. While the analysis may require the drawing of inferences – particularly where it is difficult to identify the cause of damage among multiple possible causes – establishing causation requires proof, on balance of probabilities, that a breach of duty of care (or product defect) caused the damage.

 Authored by Dr Carla Kriek, Associate, Melbourne.

[This article was originally published in the November 2017 edition of Brief, a publication of the National Product Liability Association.]

 

[i] The Civil Aviation Regulations 1988 (Cth) prescribed the classes of person allowed to carry out maintenance work on helicopters, one such class being licensed aircraft maintenance engineers (LAME). The Regulations required that maintenance work on a helicopter by a LAME be performed in accordance with instructions provided in the helicopter manual.


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