In a split decision, the Washington Supreme Court has determined that the statute of repose set forth in a federal statute bars a lawsuit involving an aircraft manufactured more than 18 years before the crash giving rise to the litigation. Burton v. Twin Commander Aircraft LLC, No. 83030-4 (Wash., decided April 7, 2011). The personal representative of the estates of the seven people who died in the crash relied on the “fraud exception” to the statute of repose, arguing that the defendant manufacturer was required to (i) re-evaluate a previous accident that had been reported and investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, (ii) conclude that it involved the same problem that led to other aircraft accidents in 2002 and 2003, and (iii) connect the earlier accident to the later accidents in reports to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
According to the majority, the earlier accident did not involve the same problem, and the personal representative failed to produce sufficient evidence to show that the defendant misrepresented, concealed or withheld FAA-required information. Without this evidence, the majority ruled, “there is no material fact issue as to whether the exception applies. This being the case, [the federal law’s] statute of repose bars this action.” The court reinstated the summary judgment the trial court granted in the defendant’s favor.
The three dissenting jurists opined that the majority failed to apply the correct summary judgment standard and would have determined that material issues of fact regarding the applicability of the fraud exception remain. According to the dissent, the majority incorrectly placed the burden on the plaintiff to prove his fraud case as a matter of law on the face of his pleadings in response to the defendant’s summary judgment motion. “It is not [the plaintiff’s] burden on summary judgment to present us with a ‘smoking gun,’ as the majority seems to require.” The dissenters were apparently concerned that certain information about aircraft failures appearing in company e-mails was not disclosed to FAA.