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Tennessee Judge Says Contractor Not Liable for Defect in Army Helicopter

Product liability is usually associated with events like car accidents, where a defect in the manufacturer’s design either causes or aggravates a victim’s injuries. But what about cases where a person is injured while operating a vehicle designed and manufactured for the government? A recent decision by a federal judge in Tennessee addressed such a scenario.

Failure to Warn” vs. “Common Sense”

Although this case was tried in Tennessee, it actually involved the application of Kentucky law to an accident that took place outside of the United States. The plaintiff was piloting a United States Army helicopter near Baghdad, Iraq, when the vehicle crashed, leaving him with permanent paralysis. The plaintiff subsequently sued a number of defendants, alleging defects in the helicopter’s design aggravated his injuries.

Specifically, the plaintiff said a modification to the helicopter’s “crush box” caused it to fail. The crush box is located below the pilot’s seat and was supposed to absorb the force of the impact upon crash. Here, the crush box apparently failed due to the modification, which involved installing another part inside the crush box.

One of the defendants was a defense contractor hired by the Army to help reconfigure the helicopter in question about about three years before the plaintiff’s accident. Although this was not the contractor that installed the VWS which caused the crush box to fail, the plaintiff produced evidence that demonstrated the defendant corresponded with the Army about the need to install the VWS. Based on this, the plaintiff said the defendant had a “duty to warn” the Army that installing the VWS might cause the crush box to fail. In other words, the plaintiff said the defendant was responsible for the Army’s decision to install the VWS.

But the contractor argued that it did give the Army a “verbal warning” not to install the VWS in the crush box. The Army chose to ignore that warning. In any event, the defendant said it breached no duty owed to the plaintiff.

A Tennessee judge agreed. In a February 2016 order granting summary judgment to the defendant, the judge said the plaintiff’s case failed for two reasons. First, as noted above the contractor did give the Army a verbal warning. The plaintiff argued it should have been a written warning, but the judge said that would not have mattered. Indeed, “common sense weighed against” the Army’s decision to place anything inside the crush box, and no warning should have been necessary, the judge said.

Second, even if there was a failure to warn, as a government contractor the defendant could not be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. A contractor may be liable for failure to give inadequate warning to the end use of a product, but here the plaintiff’s case relied on the defendant’s failure to warn the government. As noted above, it was essentially common knowledge that placing any material inside a crush box would compromise its effectiveness.

Get Help from a Product Liability Attorney

While the plaintiff was unsuccessful in the case above, failure to warn a consumer or user about a product’s potential danger is a serious matter. If you or a family member have been injured due to a dangerous or defective product, you need to speak with a Tennessee personal injury attorney right away. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today.


Linfoot v. McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company, No. 3:09-cv-00639 (M.D. Tenn., Feb. 9, 2016).

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