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Contractor Established Basis for Government Contractor Defense


A ruling the government contractor defense shielded a defense contractor from state law tort liability was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit because the government approved reasonably precise specifications and the contractor reasonably relied on those specifications. The plaintiff, a surviving spouse, brought suit alleging the contractor defectively designed the aircraft that caused her husband's death. According to the plaintiff, the design was defective in two ways. First, various components of the rudder trim system that caused the aircraft to crash represented "single point failure opportunities" and lacked redundancies that would have prevented the whole system from failing. Second, the plaintiff alleged the system was defectively designed. The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the contractor on the basis of the government contractor defense.
Boyle Test

In Boyle v. United Technologies Corp. (34 CCF 75,489), the Supreme Court set forth a three-prong test for applying the defense. Specifically, liability for design defects in military equipment cannot be imposed pursuant to state law when the government approved reasonably precise specifications, the equipment conformed to those specifications, and the contractor warned the government about dangers that were known to the contractor but not to the government. Here, the plaintiff did not argue the contractor failed the third prong, but asserted facts remained in dispute as to the first two elements. With regard to the government's approval of the specifications, at issue was whether the contractor could rely on the government's post-design, post-production inspection, and replacement of the aircraft's rudder trim pushrods. The Court of Appeals concluded that when faced with a potentially failing or defective part, the military may make a discretionary decision to address the problem and it is not appropriate to "second-guess" that judgment through a state law tort suit.
Approval and Acceptance

The contractor had presented sufficient evidence to establish, as a matter of law, that the government approved reasonably precise specifications for the rudder trim system. Government engineers signed off on documents, which demonstrated they reviewed drawings of the rudder trim system and verified that the "government approved and accepted" the system as meeting contractual requirements. Also, the inspection report stated the government was specifically aware of the design defect at issue, and with this knowledge the government issued a specific order mandating a remedy. Moreover, the government's approval was meaningful and "not a mere formality," as there was ample undisputed evidence of a "continuous back and forth" between the contractor and the government, which involved review and approval of design drawings for all systems. None of the plaintiff's arguments raised a genuine issue of fact material to the finding the government approved reasonably precise specifications. As to the second prong, the contractor also carried its burden to show it conformed to the government-approved specifications. The contractor presented evidence that government engineers reviewed drawings to ensure the aircraft complied with its design documentation. Furthermore, a government representative signed a "Material Inspection and Receiving Report," which stated the military accepted the specific aircraft that crashed and that aircraft conformed to the contract. The plaintiff made no showing to suggest the rudder trim system was not built exactly as designed. (Brinson, et al. v. Raytheon Co., et al., CA-11, 53 CCF 79,135)

(The news featured above is a selection from the news covered in the Government Contracts Report Letter, which is published weekly and distributed to subscribers of the Government Contracts Reporter. )


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