In a recent decision by the California Court of Appeals, the Court ruled that the maintenance manual of a Bell 47D1 helicopter was not a “part” of the helicopter for purposes of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (“GARA”). In Rogers v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., the plaintiff was injured in a crash and subsequently sued Bell Helicopter alleging that the helicopter’s maintenance manual was defective because it improperly instructed on balancing the helicopter’s tail rotor blades. Although the helicopter had been in operation since 1951, the maintenance manual for the helicopter was issued in 1969 and was last revised in 1975. Bell filed a motion to exclude any evidence of an allegedly defective maintenance manual based upon GARA.
Under GARA, an injured party may not sue a manufacturer for injuries sustained in an aircraft accident arising from an allegedly defective part unless the action is initiated within 18 years: (1) from the date the aircraft was delivered, for any part that was “originally in” the aircraft; (2) from “the date of the addition,” for any part that was “added to” the aircraft; and (3) from “the date of completion of the replacement,” for any part that “replaced another . . . part” of the aircraft. The trial court determined that the maintenance manual was a part of the helicopter and since the last revision to the manual occurred more than 18 years ago, any claim based upon the manual was barred by GARA.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the maintenance manual was not a “part” because it was not required to be sold with the aircraft or even be inside the aircraft, as opposed to a flight manual, which is required to be sold with the aircraft and kept in the aircraft for use by the pilot in operating the aircraft. The Court agreed, finding that no regulation required delivery of the maintenance manual with a helicopter that was manufactured in the 1950’s. The Court also relied upon other similar cases observing that the federal regulations do not require a maintenance manual to be onboard the aircraft; GARA states that a replacement part must replace a part “originally in” or “added to the aircraft,” and a maintenance manual was not a “part” “originally in” or “added to” an aircraft; and a maintenance manual applies to different aircraft models, is used by the mechanic for troubleshooting and repairing the aircraft, not for operation of the aircraft.
This case is somewhat unique in that the age of the helicopter precludes the application of FAR 21.50(b) which requires “[t]he holder of a design approval, including either the type certificate or supplemental type certificate for an aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller for which application was made after January 28, 1981, shall furnish at least one set of complete Instructions for Continued Airworthiness, to the owner of each type aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller upon its delivery, or upon issuance of the first standard airworthiness certificate for the affected aircraft, whichever occurs later.”
It is also one example of creative pleading by plaintiffs to avoid the time limitations imposed by GARA. Rather than asserting a claim that the helicopter itself was defective, a claim clearly barred by GARA’s 18 year statute of repose, the plaintiff asserted that the helicopter’s maintenance manual was defective. Although the Court of Appeals allowed the plaintiff’s claim to proceed, I would expect that Bell would appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court for further review of whether the maintenance manual is a “part” of the helicopter.