As a southern Illinois product liability attorney, I was interested to see a recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling permitting a defective parts lawsuit against a French company alleged to have caused an Illinois crash. In Russell v. SNFA, the estate of Michael Russell sued the manufacturer of the tail-rotor bearing that was used in the crash that took Russell’s life. Russell was a pilot for Air Angels Inc., operating an air ambulance in greater Chicago. The trial court dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, but the Court of Appeals reversed and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that reversal, both finding that SNFA had adequate contacts with Illinois to support jurisdiction.
The crash took place in 2003, as Russell was operating a helicopter made in 1989 by Italian company Agusta S.p.A. The helicopter had seven tail-rotor bearings custom-made by SNFA for this specific model of helicopter. Since the helicopter was manufactured, a prior owner had replaced tail-rotor bearings using SNFA-manufactured replacements bought from Agusta subsidiary Agusta Aerospace Corp. of Pennsylvania. It is not contested that SNFA parts were in the helicopter when it crashed. Russell’s estate alleged that a failure of the tail-rotor bearing caused the crash, raising strict liability and negligence claims against SNFA. SNFA moved to dismiss, arguing that there was no allegation that it had done anything wrong in Illinois. SNFA has no offices, assets or employees in Illinois, but discovery showed that AAC sold about 2,198 of SNFA’s parts in Illinois over the past decade. SNFA has also sold a different part to Hamilton Sundstrand, which has offices in Rockford, Ill.
The trial court felt this was insufficient for jurisdiction in Illinois. The appeals court reversed, but the Illinois Supreme Court quashed that decision and ordered it to reconsider in light of two 2011 U.S. Supreme Court rulings. On reconsideration, the appeals court again reversed, finding that the two cases actually supported its finding that Illinois courts have jurisdiction. SNFA appealed.
The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the appeals court. Using a conventional federal due-process analysis, the court found that specific jurisdiction in Illinois exists over SNFA, meaning that SNFA “directed its activities at” Illinois and the crash arose out of its contacts with Illinois. The Illinois high court noted that personal jurisdiction is appropriate under the “stream of commerce theory,” when the defendant sells products with the reasonable expectation that consumers in the state will buy them. However, the more recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions rejected applying the theory when the defendant merely knew the products might end up in a certain state; it requires at least a sure knowledge that products will be sold there. In this case, AAC was effectively SNFA’s American distributor, the court said, and AAC has sold five helicopters and 2,198 parts in Illinois in the last 10 years. Furthermore, SNFA has a direct relationship with Hamilton Sundstrand in Illinois. Thus, SNFA had enough minimum contacts with Illinois, the court said.
As a St. Louis defective product lawyer, I am glad this victim’s estate and family will have the opportunity to pursue the case in Illinois. As the high court noted, the only other place to litigate the issue would be France, which would be burdensome for the estate and odd, given that the accident and all of its facts and evidence were in Illinois. That’s why fights over jurisdiction are important, even if they seem like side issues—jurisdiction can determine whether the case is heard at all. And in an aviation disaster case like this, where many companies of different citizenships may be involved, sorting out jurisdiction is difficult—but vital, if the victims are to have their day in court. Aviation crashes aren’t common, but when they happen, they’re very serious disasters. Victims and their families will need an experienced Missouri product defect lawyer to help them sort out fault and ensure that they claim the fullest possible compensation for their serious injuries.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one because of someone else’s negligence. If you would like to tell us your story and learn more about how we can help, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send a message through our website.
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