Boisjoly v. Morton Thiokol, Inc.

Decision Date13 September 1988
Docket NumberCiv. No. NC-87-079W,NC-87-091W.
Citation706 F. Supp. 795
PartiesRoger BOISJOLY, Plaintiff, v. MORTON THIOKOL, INC., Defendant. USA ex rel. Roger BOISJOLY, Plaintiff, v. MORTON THIOKOL, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Utah

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John W. Adler, Catherine E. Tinker, Chicago, Ill., Robert Jordon, III, Morgan D. Hodgson, Barbara A. Pollack, Warren Patten, Washington, D.C., Daniel Boone, Jr., Morton Thiokol, Inc., Chicago, Ill., Darryl J. Lee, Divisional Counsel, Morton Thiokol, Inc., Wasatch Operations, Brigham City, Utah, for MTI.

Robert N. Levin, Washington, D.C., Robert R. Wallace, Salt Lake City, Utah, for plaintiff.

Joseph W. Anderson, Asst. U.S. Atty., Salt Lake City, Utah.

Michael F. Hertz, Dept. of Justice, Commercial Litigation Branch, Washington, D.C.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

WINDER, District Judge.

This opinion addresses two separate actions brought by plaintiff Roger Boisjoly against defendant Morton Thiokol, Inc. ("MTI"), both of which arise from the same general circumstances. The actions were instituted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and later transferred to this court. The first action, Civil No. NC-87-079W, hereinafter termed the "private action," is before this court on the motion of defendant MTI for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). The second, Civil No. NC-87-091W, hereinafter termed the "qui tam" action, is before the court on MTI's Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss and Rule 12(f) motion to strike portions of the prayer for relief.

The court heard oral arguments on both motions on February 23, 1988. Appearing for plaintiff Boisjoly were Robert N. Levin and Robert R. Wallace. Appearing for defendant MTI were Robert E. Jordan, Morgan D. Hodgson, Barbara A. Pollack and Warren Patten. Prior to the hearing the court had reviewed all memoranda submitted by the parties and by the United States, which had submitted an Amicus Curiae memorandum in regard to the qui tam action. After taking this matter under advisement, the court has further considered the law and facts and now renders the following memorandum decision and order. Based upon the following discussion, the court dismisses all claims in both actions with prejudice, except that Counts V and VI of the private action are dismissed without prejudice by agreement of the parties.

Discussion
A. Background:

On January 26, 1986, Flight 51-L of the Space Shuttle Challenger ended in tragedy. Seconds after launch, an explosion destroyed the Shuttle and killed the seven astronauts on board. Shortly thereafter, President Reagan appointed an independent Commission, commonly referred to as the Rogers Commission, to investigate the accident.

In the resulting report (the "Rogers Commission Report")1, the Commission found that the cause of the accident was a failure in the joint between two segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor ("SRM"). Hot gases escaped through a leak in the joint's seal, and resulted in the explosion that destroyed the Shuttle. The Commission concluded that the failure was due to a "faulty design unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors including temperature, physical dimensions, the character of materials, the effects of reusability, processing, and the reaction of the joint to dynamic loading." I Rogers Commission Report 72. It was recommended that the joint be redesigned.

Defendant MTI designed and manufactured the SRM's used in the Shuttle Program, including the SRM found to be the cause of the accident, under an exclusive contract with NASA. Plaintiff Roger Boisjoly is an engineer who was employed by MTI and whose work involved the SRM's.

The Rogers Commission also concluded that a contributing cause of the accident was NASA's decision to launch flight 51-L under unusually cold temperatures, which affected the joint's ability to seal itself, and that the process by which that decision was reached within NASA's complex decisionmaking hierarchy was itself flawed. It found that engineers at MTI, including Roger Boisjoly, were concerned with the performance of the seals in SRM joints at the predicted temperatures. Prior flights launched at significantly warmer temperatures had experienced incomplete seals and minor gas escapes. The engineers made their concerns known to MTI management and to those NASA officials directly involved with the SRM aspect of the Shuttle Program. MTI management initially recommended to NASA officials that the launch be delayed until temperatures rose. Due to pressure from NASA, MTI management reversed its position and recommended that the launch proceed despite continuing objections from Boisjoly and others.

The Commission found that the NASA officials possessing knowledge of the engineers' concerns and MTI's initial recommendation failed to pass that information to NASA officials above them in the launch decision hierarchy. Those who made the final decision of whether to launch never knew of the specific concerns with the function of the joint seals at the low launch temperature. In sum, the Commission concluded that

The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuous opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position.... If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.

I Rogers Commission Report 82.

Following the accident, plaintiff Boisjoly testified before the Rogers Commission and congressional committees investigating the accident and its causes. It is these facts, findings and circumstances that form the background for Boisjoly's actions against MTI.

B. Private Action:

Boisjoly seeks to recover compensatory and punitive damages from MTI under a number of common law and statutory causes of action, including defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, antitrust, witness tampering, and civil conspiracy.2 Pursuant to MTI's Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, this court dismisses all claims with prejudice. The court's reasoning on each claim is explained below.

1. Defamation (Count II):

The acts upon which Boisjoly bases his defamation claim are alleged as follows:

71. Since the date of the disaster, MTI spokespersons have consistently and falsely attempted to portray Plaintiff as a disgruntled or malcontented employee whose views should be discounted and whose professional expertise should be doubted.
72. The most recent such attack occurred in January of 1987 in an interview between a MTI publicist and a professional engineering publication known as the Spectrum wherein the MTI spokesperson falsely alleged that plaintiff was "impatient" and had attempted to use vendors and other subcontractors in connection with his work on the joints in violation of the contracts between the government and MTI.

The Complaint goes on to allege that Boisjoly was injured in his profession due to the alleged conduct of MTI. It does not allege special damages.

The Court holds that the conclusory allegations in paragraph seventy-one do not meet the particularity requirements with which a defamation claim must be alleged. Utah law requires that a claim must identify the defamatory statement either by its "words or words to that effect;" general conclusory statements are inadequate. Williams v. State Farm Insurance Co., 656 P.2d 966, 971 (1982); Dennett v. Smith, 21 Utah 2d 368, 445 P.2d 983, 984 (1968). Although there is no Utah law directly on point, courts have generally required the complaint to also allege when, where, and to whom the alleged defamatory statement was made. See e.g. Schulze v. Coykendall, 218 Kan. 653, 545 P.2d 392, 397 (1976). The purpose of the particularity requirement in pleading defamation is to allow the court to decide if the statement is defamatory and to allow the defendant to formulate a defense. See 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1309, p. 441-42 (1969); 50 Am.Jur.2d Libel and Slander § 408 (1970).

Paragraph seventy-one clearly fails to allege, in "words or words to that effect," a single specific defamatory statement by defendant MTI. This paragraph also does not document when, where or to whom any defamatory statement was made. In fact, its conclusory allegations are quite similar to those dismissed for lack of particularity by the Dennett court. In the Dennett case, the plaintiff alleged that "defendant made, declared and published to certain persons certain derogatory and libelous statements relating and pertaining to plaintiff which tended to degrade and discredit him." Dennett, 445 P.2d at 984. Cf. Goldberg v. Sitomer, Sitomer & Porges, 97 A.D.2d 114, 469 N.Y.S.2d 81, 83 (1 Dept. 1983).3

On the other hand, paragraph seventy-two arguably meets the particularity requirements but, nevertheless, fails to allege a statement that is defamatory. By referring to the month during which the alleged defamatory remarks were made, who made them,4 and in general terms to whom they were made, Boisjoly arguably has put MTI on sufficient notice of what statements it must defend against. Further, by stating that the content of the alleged statement, i.e., that Boisjoly "was `impatient' and had attempted to use vendors and other subcontractors in connection with his work on the joints in violation of the contracts between the government and Thiokol," Boisjoly has arguably met the "words or words to that effect" standard of Dennett.

However, this court does not find the quoted statements to be defamatory. Because he has not alleged special damages, Boisjoly can only recover if the defamatory statement is slander per se. Western States Title v. Warnock, 18 Utah 2d 70, ...

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