The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska recently held that a manufacturer and installer of a short-field takeoff and landing kit could not assert the learned intermediary and sophisticated user doctrines as defenses against all claims brought by a deceased passenger's representatives arising from the crash of a DHC-3 Otter that had been modified with the kit. 

In Specter v. Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc., Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment on two bases. First, Plaintiffs argued that the sophisticated user doctrine applies only to failure to warn claims, and, even though Plaintiffs asserted a failure to warn claim in addition to a design defect product liability claim, kit manufacturer Texas Turbine Conversions ("TTC") and installer Recon Air Corporation ("RAC") did not offer any relevant warning in the first place. 

Second, Plaintiffs argued that the learned intermediary doctrine was not available in a pilot-passenger context.  TTC and RAC responded that the pilot of the accident flight served as an intermediary between himself and the passenger, and was aware of risks associated with the kit because he was provided with the FAA-approved flight manual supplement.  The defendants likened the pilot to a doctor warning a patient of drug risks—a relationship in which Alaska law recognized use of the learned intermediary doctrine. 

In granting partial summary judgment to Plaintiffs on the application of the sophisticated user doctrine, the Court limited its application to Plaintiffs' failure to warn claim, but declined to decide whether the
defendants actually made any such warnings.  As to the learned intermediary doctrine, the Court found there was no precedent to justify application in the pilot-passenger context because Alaska courts had not extended the doctrine outside of the doctor-patient relationship in over three decades, and had cautioned that it had limited applicability.  The Court did not feel inclined to follow other courts that had extended the doctrine to the pilot-passenger relationship.  See, e.g., Stevens v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 115 Cal. App. 3d 431, 433-34 (Cal. App. 1981).

Specter serves as a reminder that the sophisticated user doctrine can be an effective defense where an aviation manufacturer is faced with a failure to warn claim, and that it is important to determine whether the applicable jurisdiction has recognized (or, at least not explicitly precluded) the learned intermediary doctrine as a defense where aircraft passengers bring claims against manufacturers.  Even if these defenses appear viable, they are highly fact-specific, and must be a focus during discovery if a manufacturer defendant hopes to prevail at the summary judgment stage.  Specter v. Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10988 (D. Alaska Jan. 21, 2021)

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