Australia: Cause of helicopter crash decision overturned by High Court

Last Updated: 9 October 2016
Article by Andrew Tulloch and Marguerite Donaldson

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 [2016] 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 secure bolts

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 [2014] 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 infer that:

  • it was likely that the LAME, who had inspected the helicopter at the relevant 100 hourly inspection, had not consulted the manual
  • the manual instructions were not complex, even for a layperson, and therefore
  • 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 [2003] 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 High Court

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 helicopter crash
  • 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 crash

Andrew Tulloch
Aviation
Colin Biggers & Paisley

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