An aircraft maintenance contractor is not liable in the 2014 death of a civilian Department of Defense pilot who crashed over the Gulf of Mexico during a flight out of Tyndall Air Force Base, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The crash, which occurred about 85 miles south of Tyndall, claimed the life of 58-year-old Matthew J. LaCourse, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who at the time of the crash was working as a civilian F-16 jet pilot with the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.
LaCourse had been with the squadron as a civilian since 2006 and had been a pilot with the squadron for four years prior to the crash. The squadron, assigned to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, is based at Tyndall near Panama City. LaCourse had spent part of his Air Force career at Tyndall.
An Air Force investigation of the crash found that LaCourse, who had a 22-year Air Force career before entering civil service, had not had the proper training to begin flying the F-16 jets again after a nearly 20-year hiatus.
More specifically, the report found that LaCourse had not been required to attend F-16 centrifuge retraining, as he should have been, before he was qualified to fly the jet again. He didn’t get that retraining, according to the report, because squadron leadership misapplied Air Force guidance and inappropriately gave him credit for his flight time in the F-4 Phantom jet. Prior to his 2014 recertification, LaCourse had not flown the F-16 since 1994.
LaCourse’s military career comprised just 102 hours of F-16 flight time, the report went on to note, with 82 of those hours coming before 1994. He had flown the jet for just nine hours, over seven flights, in the 90 days prior to the crash, according to the Air Force report.
The crash occurred during a routine training mission with another jet, according to the report. The report indicated that LaCourse’s maneuvering of his jet in the moments before the crash caused him to become disoriented and nearly incapacitated.
LaCourse’s widow, Patricia, filed a lawsuit in state court in Florida against PAE Worldwide and its predecessor, Defense Support Services. The case was subsequently moved to federal court after PAE argued that federal jurisdiction, including the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), applied to the case.
According to footnotes in the ruling issued Tuesday from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, “the parties vigorously dispute the crash’s cause. LaCourse and her experts blame the F-16’s dual-hydraulic system, as well as PAE’s failure to discover, diagnose, and address the problems. PAE and its experts, by contrast, posit that Lt. Col. LaCourse suffered a G-induced loss of consciousness … (during the crash).”
The appeals court ruling, though, was concerned with just two issues — the applicability of DOHSA and whether the federal district court that initially heard the case had properly addressed PAE’s assertion of the “government-contractor defense.” Briefly, that defense extends the federal government’s immunity from lawsuits regarding injuries from defective equipment to contractors who provide equipment under government-provided specifications.
The appeals court acknowledged the importance of DOHSA to the case, noting that while it allows recovery of monetary damages, it forecloses any claims of punitive damages or recovery of damages for emotional injury.
With regard to DOHSA, LaCourse’s widow contended that the alleged improper maintenance of the F-16 occurred on land at Tyndall.
The appeals court, noting the plain language of DOHSA, also referenced a 1974 federal court ruling in a case involving an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. That ruling, from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, reads in part that “DOHSA has been construed to confer admiralty jurisdiction over claims arising out of airplane crashes on the high seas though the negligence alleged to have caused the crash occurred on land.”
As a result, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in LaCourse’s case notes that the court is “constrained to agree with the district court that DOHSA applies despite the fact that PAE’s alleged negligence occurred on land at Tyndall Air Force Base.”
With regard to PAE’s assertion of the government-contractor defense, the appeals court ruling references LaCourse’s contention that PAE had “failed to establish that it conformed to the government’s reasonably specific maintenance procedures.” However, the ruling goes on to note that LaCourse did not provide sufficiently detailed evidence that PAE had not conformed to maintenance procedures.
“All that matters on that score is whether PAE violated reasonably precise government procedures, and based on the evidence presented from both parties we conclude that it did not,” the ruling read, in part.
The appeals court ruling upholds a prior federal court ruling in favor of PAE Worldwide.
In an August 2019 summary judgment in the case, Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola wrote that LaCourse’s widow had “not produced evidence sufficient to create a genuine disputed issue of material fact as to whether PAE’s maintenance … conformed to the Air Force’s reasonably precise standards and guidelines. The uncontradicted evidence is that it did.”
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