This case, Colgan Air, Incorporated v. Raytheon Aircraft Company, arose out of the August 26, 2003 crash of a Colgan Air Beech 1900 aircraft off the coast of Massachusetts shortly after takeoff. The aircraft was destroyed and the pilot and co-pilot were killed. Colgan leased the aircraft that crashed from Raytheon Aircraft Company. Immediately prior to the accident, Colgan’s mechanics installed a new elevator trim tab cable using the procedure outlined in the Raytheon maintenance manual for the Aircraft. Unfortunately, the trim tab cable was installed incorrectly such that the trim tabs operated in reverse.
In the aftermath of the accident, Colgan sued Raytheon alleging that several errors in the maintenance manual for the aircraft, which was created and published by Raytheon, caused the fatal crash. Raytheon filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the Used Airliner Airplane Warranty, executed by Colgan as part of its lease of the aircraft, contained a waiver of rights, which precluded all of Colgan’s claims against Raytheon. Presuming for purposes of the summary judgment motion that the maintenance manual did contain defects that were the proximate cause of the crash, the district court granted Raytheon’s motion and dismissed Colgan’s claims against it.
The district court concluded the manual was “part of the aircraft” as a matter of law because: “(1) other courts have concluded that ‘a product, such as an aircraft, and its maintenance or other operational manuals are a single, integrated product,’; (2) the FARs support the conclusion that an aircraft’s maintenance manual is an integrated part of the aircraft; and (3) the fact that Colgan may have purchased the maintenance manual in a separate transaction is immaterial to determining that a maintenance manual and an aircraft are a single product. As a result, the Used Airliner Airplane Warranty governed and Colgan’s only warranty rights had expired ninety-days after its initial lease of the aircraft (before the time of the accident). The district court also held that the waiver language contained in the Used Airliner Airplane Warranty precluded Colgan’s claims based on negligence or strict liability in tort. As you might imagine, Colgan appealed.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court. Initially, the 4th Circuit distinguished cases that specifically dealt with a flight manual, as opposed to a maintenance manual because “a maintenance manual is not sufficiently similar to a flight manual. A flight manual is used by the pilot and is ‘necessary to operate the aircraft,’ whereas a maintenance manual ‘outline[s] procedures for the troubleshooting and repair of the aircraft’ for the mechanic.” The court also noted that “a maintenance manual, unlike a flight manual, can be used on multiple (albeit identical model) aircraft.”
Next, the Court observed that FAR 43.13 allows aircraft to be maintained using the current manufacturer’s maintenance manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness prepared by the aircraft’s manufacturer, “or other methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Administrator.” As a result, the manufacturer’s maintenance manual is not “essential” to maintaining an aircraft’s airworthiness under the FARs and thus, “the federal regulations do not support a conclusion that, as a matter of law, a maintenance manual is a component of an aircraft, nor do the regulations indicate that the two constitute a single, integrated product as a matter of law.”
Finally, the Court concluded that an issue of fact existed as to whether the maintenance manual was provided to Colgan in connection with its lease of the aircraft and, ultimately, whether the parties intended and considered the maintenance manual to be “part of the aircraft” so as to make the Used Airliner Airplane Warranty applicable. Accordingly, the Court determined that summary judgment on this issue was inappropriate.
With respect to Colgan’s express warranty argument, the Court concluded that the maintenance manual’s statement (that if the user follows the instructions contained therein — specifically, the illustration in Chapter 27-30-04 — then the cables will not cross and the trim tabs will move properly), could lead a jury to reasonably find that in using the product as directed, the maintenance manual failed to perform as warranted, and thereby caused the accident. As a result, the Court determined that summary judgment was inappropriate on this issue because an issue of fact existed for the jury as to whether the statement constituted an express warranty.
I think the 4th Circuit did a nice job with its analysis of this case. I am not sure whether the district court simply misunderstood the issues or if, perhaps, the issue wasn’t argued as clearly and concisely as it could have been. However, based upon the record presented to the district court, the 4th Circuit clearly understood that a flight manual can be distinguished from a maintenance manual, both from a practical and a regulatory perspective. Of course, the 4th Circuit’s decision doesn’t rule out the possibility that the facts presented at trial will ultimately support the conclusion that the maintenance manual was “part of the aircraft.” However, at least this way the parties have their day in court and all of the facts will, hopefully, be presented.