The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently issued an opinion that rejected a plaintiff’s argument that a service bulletin was a replacement part under the General Aviation Revitalization Act (“GARA”). The case, Moyer v. Teledyne Continental Motors et al., arose from a crash of a 1982 Beech V35B Bonanza aircraft. The pilot’s estate sued Teledyne Continental Motors (“TCM”), the engine manufacturer, and a number of other parties. Although GARA’s statute of repose protected TCM since the engine and aircraft were over 18 years old, the Plaintiff attempted to avoid GARA’s limitation by alleging that TCM’s Service Bulletin M90-17 (containing crankcase welding maintenance criteria), issued 12 ½ years before the accident, was a “replacement part” that was defective and for which a claim could still be asserted.
The trial court disagreed. It observed that a manufacturer continually issues service bulletins pertaining to a variety of topics and “if the statute of repose [were] triggered every time a service bulletin was issued, the intent of GARA would be eviscerated.” The trial court granted TCM’s motion for summary judgment.
On appeal, the Plaintiff framed the issue as follows: “Are an aircraft engine manufacturer’s Instructions for Continuing Airworthiness ‘Parts’ of an aircraft such that their date of publication or amendment triggers the “rolling” 18-year statute of repose under the General Aviation Revitalization Act when they are required to be issued by the Federal Aviation Regulations and the engine could not exist without them?”
The Plaintiff argued that the service bulletin was necessary for the operation of the aircraft and was therefore tantamount to an instruction manual. The argument relied upon a Ninth Circuit decision holding that flight manuals, which are required by the FARs, could be considered a “new part” or a “defective system” because they contain the instructions necessary for the aircraft’s operation and are therefore deemed to be inseparable from the aircraft.
The Superior Court initially noted the absence of any “authority from either the Pennsylvania state courts or the Third Circuit for the proposition that a service bulletin is the equivalent of a flight manual.” The Superior Court distinguished the Ninth Circuit case relied upon by the Plaintiff by observing that the flight manual was defective because it failed to supply critical information, whereas in this case the service bulletin did not fail, but rather the crankcase failed. It then summarily agreed with the Trial Court’s determination that a service bulletin is not the equivalent of a flight manual or replacement part for GARA purposes.
This is the right decision by the Superior Court. The Plaintiff’s arguments regarding the nature of service bulletins and their “necessity” for aircraft operation are incorrect. Unlike an aircraft flight manual, which the FARs require and which must be used by a pilot operating the aircraft, compliance with a service bulletin, in the absence of a corresponding airworthiness directive and assuming operations under FAR Part 91, is not mandatory. Nice to see the Pennsylvania Superior Court actually maintain some of the protection Congress intended GARA to provide.