M.C. Sungaila, Partner at Haynes and Boone LLP, made a comment in a recently published Westlaw Journal Aviation article on behalf of the IADC.
Here is the article which was originally published on October 7 in Westlaw Journal Aviaition:
Justices Asked to Review ‘Prevailing Party’ Ruling in Wrongful-Death Suit
The adult children of a couple killed in a 2008 plane crash have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a California appeals court ruling that said a parts manufacturer, which a jury found negligent, is entitled to costs.
Bechtel et al. v. Sandel Avionics Inc., No. 15-336, petition for cert. filed (U.S. Sept. 15, 2015).
Lura Hess Bechtel and Johanna Hess’ petition for certiorari says the California Court of Appeal erroneously found Sandel Avionics Inc. was the prevailing party after a trial court reduced their verdict award to zero following a setoff from settlement in a related suit filed in New York.
According to the petition, California procedural rules provide costs to the party that is deemed the prevailing party, or victor, in a lawsuit. Under Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1032(a)(4), a prevailing party can include a defendant where neither party obtained any relief.
The appeals court ruled Sandel was the prevailing party for the purpose of awarding costs because the plaintiffs did not meet their litigation objective of a monetary recovery.
“It is unfathomable to believe that an institution sworn to uphold the rights of citizens and the [U.S.] Constitution would coerce people to pay the entity responsible for the deaths of their family,” the petition says.
M.C. Sungaila, a partner with Haynes & Boone and chair of the Amicus Curiae Committee of the International Association of Defense Counsel, who is not involved with the case, expressed doubt that the Supreme Court would review the petition.
“The petition here, while couched in terms of federal due process concerns, essentially challenges an intermediate appellate court’s application of state law and a purportedly unfair result between the parties involved,” Sungaila said. “Given this, the petition does not appear to have a particularly strong likelihood of success.”
The plaintiffs’ parents, Donald and Victoria Hess, were killed in November 2008 when the Cirrus SR 22 single-engine plane Donald was flying crashed during landing at the Tallahassee International Airport in Florida, according to the petition.
Bechtel and Johanna Hess filed wrongful-death and survivor claims in New York’s Erie County Supreme Court against Sandel Avionics. They alleged the company’s horizontal situation indicator, which provided the plane’s heading to the pilot, failed to detect a mechanical failure with the flux detector, which sends the heading information to the HSI.
The HSI provided misinformation to Donald, causing him to crash, the suit said.
The plaintiffs’ suit also named aircraft manufacturer Cirrus Design Corp.; Boshart Enterprises, which
maintained the plane; and Goodrich Corp., which manufactured the flux detector.
Sandel won its objection to personal jurisdiction, and the petitioners filed a complaint against the
company in its home state of California.
Before a San Diego County Superior Court jury returned a $2.2 million verdict in favor of the plaintiffs for Sandel’s negligence, defective product and breach of express warranty, the defendants in the New York suit settled for an undisclosed amount.
The Superior Court applied a setoff from the settlement and reduced the plaintiffs’ judgment to zero based on a New York law intended to prevent double recovery where two or more parties can be liable for causing the same injury.
Bechtel and Hess appealed the trial court’s reduction of their damages award.
The California appeals court agreed with Sandel that it was the prevailing party in the suit because the plaintiffs obtained no relief at trial. The three-judge appellate panel remanded the case with instructions for the trial court to determine Sandel’s recoverable costs.
The trial court has not yet ruled on the amount owed for Sandel’s costs.
DEFENSE COSTS ‘UNCONSTITUTIONAL’
The petition for certiorari seeks Supreme Court review to prevent, what it calls, the “injustice” brought about by coercing Bechtel and Hess to pay costs to the party responsible for their parents’ deaths.
Prevailing party costs are assessed as a civil penalty under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the petition says, but Bechtel and Hess did not commit an infraction.
“Compelling them to pay Sandel prevailing party costs in this case undeniably constitutes a sanction, fine and punishment,” the plaintiffs say.
The California courts misinterpreted New York law, the petition says.
New York law does not allow a setoff to be applied for settlements obtained in non-tort causes of action, like the plaintiffs’ claim for breach of express warranty against Sandel, the petition says.
The appeals court erroneously ruled the exception was only applicable to implied warranties, the petition says.
The Supreme Court should also review whether New York is the proper forum to evaluate their rights, the plaintiffs say, asserting New York Supreme Court violated their due process rights when it forced them to file suit in the defendant’s hometown simply to adhere to archaic personal jurisdiction laws.
“The corollary of perpetuating the fiction that due process must focus on what is right for a defendant has inflicted due process harm on plaintiffs,” the petition says.