The Queensland Supreme Court has recently found that the Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC) was neither negligent nor in breach of the consumer protection provisions set out under the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) (TPA) in regards to the provision of inspection procedures in the R-22 maintenance manual (MM).

Background

The plaintiff, a Queensland based pastoralist was seriously injured when the R-22 Mariner II helicopter in which he was a passenger crashed on a remote property (the pilot died as a result of the accident). A multi-million dollar claim against RHC ensued.

The plaintiff gave evidence to the Court that immediately prior to the accident, the helicopter was flying at approximately 70 feet above the ground, the plaintiff observed a gap in the fence line and accordingly instructed the pilot to swing the helicopter to the left and land.  Following that instruction, the plaintiff reported a loud bang and massive vibration ensuing. An auto-rotation was attempted following which the aircraft 'hit the ground and bounced forward' approximately '20 feet', at this time the helicopter was on fire.

After investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB),(1) it was found the accident occurred because of the failure of the forward flexplate. The failure occurred at the location of one of the bolts connecting the main rotor gearbox yoke to the flexplate. A lack of clamping force caused fretting which in turn caused the flexplate to fracture. This finding was not in issue at trial (albeit that the finding was introduced by the plaintiff's expert rather than the ATSB).

The plaintiff alleged the MM did not provide adequate 100 hourly inspection procedures for the detection of cracks initiating at the bolt holes in the forward flexplate, fretting wear of the bolt shaft or the joint components and disbanding of the bonded washers.(2) The plaintiff contended these alleged inadequacies amounted to a breach of RHC's duty of care to the Plaintiff, and were evidence of the MM being defective for the purpose of a claim under the TPA.

In response, RHC alleged the cause of the accident was the failure of the maintenance organisations and the pilot to detect the loose bolt and the resultant fretting and cracking.(3) 

During the trial,(4) the Court heard evidence from a metallurgist, four mechanical engineers, an aerospace engineer, an aviation safety expert, the two licensed aircraft maintenance engineers (LAME) responsible for performance of the two 100 hourly inspections which preceded the accident, two expert LAME, a piloting expert as well as the plaintiff, and two pilots who flew the helicopter prior to the subject loss.

Findings

Negligence Claim

In respect of the negligence claim raised by the Plaintiff against RHC, the Court considered the critical question was whether the provisions of the MM adequately provided for steps to be taken to prevent failure of the flexplate(5) and that this question was to be answered by looking at the effect of the MM as a whole.

In doing this, the Court came to the conclusion that the instructions in the MM required a LAME, carrying out a 100 hourly inspection, to examine the condition of the torque stripes on the relevant bolts; that if the condition of the torque stripe was not as specified in the MM, then the LAME was required to take further steps to ensure that the torque was in accordance with the MM, and that accordingly, compliance with the MM was sufficient to prevent the accident.(6)

In concluding that RHC had discharged its duty of care in regards to the instructions set out in the MM, the Court noted there may be difficulties with inspecting the torque stripes on the flexplate bolts due to access and lighting issues although neither of the LAME examined by the Court during the trial raised this as a problem in practice.  On that basis, the Court found it was reasonable for RHC to expect a qualified LAME would use a torch and mirror to inspect a torque stripe if direct vision was not adequate.

While the Court was satisfied the instructions in the MM pertaining to torque stripes was sufficient to prevent the accident, in the event that finding was wrong, consideration was given to a number of other matters which it was asserted would have been indicia of a problem with the flexplate and which should have been addressed by the MM. 

The Court though did not accept these matters as necessary (i.e. use of a spanner or torque wrench, disassembly and reassembly of the flexplate) or else found them to otherwise be insufficient indicia of a problem (i.e. fretting dust, cracks in the flexplate and disbonding of washers), on the basis that each of these items may have been masked by the design of the system.

TPA Claim

In relation to the TPA claim, the Court found the Plaintiff was unable to establish the existence of a defect in the goods supplied by RHC (i.e. the helicopter and the MM) and as such, the plaintiff's TPA claims also failed.

Conclusions

While somewhat confined to its own facts, the decision highlights the importance of ensuring the assessment of negligence on the part of a manufacturer or LAME, is considered against the standard of what a 'reasonable person standing in the shoes of the manufacturer or LAME' would have done in the circumstances.

For those involved in the provision of maintenance services to the aviation industry, the decision highlights the importance of following the instructions set out in the MM.  It also provides some good insight into what the Court considers to be the critical aspects of the 100 hourly inspection and how the Court would expect compliance to be achieved (i.e. use of a torch and mirror to inspect torque stripes if direct vision is not available).  Understanding the Court's expectations may be of assistance to maintenance service providers in event they are required to defend a negligence claim in the future.