$28 Million in Punitive Damages Reinstated in Skydiving Crash

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May 17, 2013
Michael McGrory
SmithAmundsen Aerospace Alert

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The Missouri Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Delacroix v. Doncasters, Inc., a highly-anticipated ruling on a $28 million punitive damages award against an aircraft engine component manufacturer. The case arises out of the crash of a DHC-6 Twin Otter after an engine failed, killing the pilot and five skydivers. The plaintiffs alleged that the engine’s CT-blades, which were manufactured by Doncasters, Inc., were defective because of the alloy and coating material used.

Trial was bifurcated into two phases as a discovery sanction due to Doncasters’ untimely production of more than 8,000 documents. In the first phase, the jury awarded $4 million in compensatory damages for each decedent. In the second phase, the jury awarded $28 million in punitive damages because it found that Doncasters had actual knowledge of the defect and showed a complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others. The judge later ruled that the evidence in support of punitive damages was inadequate. Both parties appealed.

Doncasters raised nine arguments on appeal, each one systematically rejected. The arguments were primarily factual or evidentiary in nature, and appellate courts will rarely upset a jury’s factual findings or second-guess a trial court’s discretion as to what evidence to allow. The court disregarded other arguments pertaining to the bifurcation of trial and setoff for settlements because Doncasters failed to properly raise them at trial.

Most significantly, the appellate court reinstated the punitive damages award. There was evidence that the CT-blades had failed two endurance tests when undergoing FAA certification, and the court found this to be sufficient proof that Doncasters had actual knowledge of the defects. Doncasters argued that expert testimony in support of punitive damages was speculative, but again, because Doncasters failed to make that objection at trial, the court deemed the argument waived. A dissenting justice expressed dismay at the punitive damages award, and compared this case to others where evidence even more compelling was found insufficient for punitive damages. The court also denied Doncasters’ request for a new trial on punitive damages, in part because some objections were not properly preserved at trial.

Punitive damages remain fairly unusual and, given the amount at issue and the well-reasoned dissent, the Supreme Court of Missouri may review this case. Nevertheless, this is a chilling reminder of the unpredictability of jury trials, especially in airplane crashes where jurors will be tempted to compensate an innocent passenger regardless of liability. An appeal should serve as a tempering countermeasure to the passions of trial, but here the appellate court disregarded several arguments because they were not properly raised during trial. SmithAmundsen is fortunate to have a dedicated appellate team available for consultation during trial to help spot errors and preserve arguments for appeal.