In brief - Court of Appeal errs in overturning primary
judge's findings of fact
The High Court of Australia's recent decision in Robinson
Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott  HCA 22
overturned the Court of Appeal's findings and upheld those of
the primary judge. Rather than technical legal questions, this case
focused on findings of fact and causation concerning a helicopter
crash. The High Court found that the primary judge did not err in
finding that the maintenance manual provided adequate instruction
to detect a defect and that the manufacturer should therefore not
be held liable.
Licenced aircraft maintenance engineer most likely neglected to
In 2004, Mr McDermott was flying as a passenger in a Robinson
helicopter when there was a large bang and massive vibration
throughout the helicopter before it hit the ground, killing the
pilot and seriously injuring Mr McDermott. For further analysis of
the primary case, see Andrew Tulloch's April 2014 article Helicopter accidents and the law of negligence.
The undisputed cause of the crash was a failure of the
helicopter's forward flex plate, part of the helicopter
engine's drive system which transferred torque to the main
rotor. One of the four bolts securing the flex plate was not
tightened enough, ultimately causing the flex plate to fail. It was
accepted that it was most likely a licenced aircraft maintenance
engineer (LAME) who neglected to properly secure the bolts.
Majority of Court of Appeal overturns decision that manual
provided adequate instruction
However, the focus in the primary case McDermott and others v Robinson Helicopter Company 
QSC 34 was not about when and how the defect arose. Rather, Mr
McDermott's claim in negligence and product liability was based
on whether the inspection procedure in Robinson's maintenance
manual was inadequate for identifying the defect. Justice Lyons
dismissed this claim, finding in Robinson's favour that the
manual gave adequate instruction.
Mr McDermott was given leave to appeal. Upon hearing the case,
the majority of the Court of Appeal (McMurdo, P and Alan Wilson, J;
Holmes JA dissented) reached a different conclusion to Justice
Lyons. It found Robinson was liable on the grounds that the manual
did not provide adequate instruction to detect the defect.
Robinson successfully appeals finding of liability for
manual's inadequate instruction
Robinson's subsequent appeal to the High Court was allowed.
Upon hearing the appeal, the High Court found that contrary to the
reasoning of the Court of Appeal, the primary judge was correct to
it was likely that the LAME, who had inspected the helicopter
at the relevant 100 hourly inspection, had not consulted the
the manual instructions were not complex, even for a layperson,
had the manual been consulted, it would have been apparent to a
LAME that further investigation of the incorrectly assembled bolt
was required to ensure it was sufficiently tightened
The High Court referred to its findings in Fox
v Percy  HCA 22 that a court of appeal, in rehearing
a case on appeal, is bound to conduct a "real review" of
the evidence and of the judge's reasoning in a primary case to
determine whether the judge erred in fact or law.
Findings of fact and causation by primary judge maintained by
The High Court noted that a court of appeal should only
interfere with a primary judge's findings of fact if they are
demonstrated to be wrong. The findings of fact by Justice Lyons
were maintained by the High Court.
The unanimous findings of the High Court were that:
the majority of the Court of Appeal erred in overturning the
primary judge's findings of fact concerning the cause of a
the primary judge's findings of fact accorded to the weight
of the lay and expert evidence and the Court of Appeal should not
have overturned them
the primary judge found that the manual provided adequate
instructions to identify the defect, and
even if it were accepted that Robinson had breached its duty of
care in the manner alleged by Mr McDermott, it was not causative of
The route to the Amendment Act has been a rather arduous.
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