In re Air Crash at Detroit Metro. Airport

Decision Date17 January 1992
Docket Number89-2696 and 90-3482.,MDL No. 742. No. 89-3236
Citation791 F. Supp. 1204
PartiesIn re AIR CRASH AT DETROIT METROPOLITAN AIRPORT, DETROIT, MICHIGAN ON AUGUST 16, 1987. NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Plaintiff, v. MCDONNELL DOUGLAS CORPORATION, and Texas Instruments, Inc./Klixon, Defendants. NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Plaintiff, v. MCDONNELL DOUGLAS CORPORATION, Texas Instruments, Inc./Klixon, and National Car Rental System, Inc., Defendants. NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Plaintiff, v. CAE ELECTRONICS, LTD, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan

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Carroll E. Dubuc, Michael Selter, Aidan Jones, William Evans, Washington, D.C., for plaintiff.

Douglas E. Winter, Washington, D.C., Donald E. Shely, Detroit, Mich., for defendant McDonnell Douglas.

Thomas Keenan, Farmington Hills, Mich., Kent M. Johnson, Robert White, Dallas, Tex., for defendant Texas Instruments.

Richard Ward, Michelle Thomas, Southfield, Mich., for CAE Electronics.

Fred C. Begy, John Adler, Richard Walker, Chicago, Ill., Carl Greenberg, Short Hills, N.J., for defendant Nat. Car Rental Systems.

ORDER

JULIAN ABELE COOK, Jr., Chief Judge.

This case involves a tragedy that occurred on August 16, 1987 when Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed shortly after takeoff from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and resulted in the death of one hundred fifty-six people and injuries to several other persons.

There are a variety of motions, most of which have been filed by the Third-Party Defendants1 in this cause, that are currently pending before this court. These motions are based on the jury verdict and ensuing final judgment which addressed and resolved the general loss claims between Northwest Airlines, Inc. (Northwest) and McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC).

Northwest has filed cross-motions for summary judgment and a motion to amend its complaints. In addition, Northwest and MDC have filed cross-motions for summary judgment which relate to whether MDC is entitled to contribution, indemnity, and subrogation in the "special defense" cases.2 All of these pleadings raise complex and vexing issues pertaining to choice of law, collateral estoppel (issue preclusion), res judicata (claim preclusion), the law of the case doctrine, and, finally, contribution, indemnity and equitable subrogation.

For the following reasons, the court will (1) grant MDC's July 16, 1991 motion for summary judgment in the loss of aircraft hull cases, (2) grant the July 16, 1991 motion for summary judgment by Texas Instruments Inc./Klixon (TI), (3) grant in part and deny in part the July 16, 1991 motions of National Car Rental System, Inc. (NCR), (4) grant in part and deny in part Northwest's August 30, 1991 cross-motion for summary judgment against NCR, (5) grant in part and deny in part Northwest's September 11, 1991 motion to amend its claims, (6) grant in part the July 16, 1991 requests of CAE Electronic, Ltd. (CAE), (7) grant MDC's November 8, 1991 motion for summary judgment in the special defense cases, and (8) deny Northwest's November 21, 1991 cross-motion for summary judgment.

I.

The first case to arise from the tragedy at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport was filed with this court on August 28, 1987 and charged Northwest and MDC, the manufacturer of the aircraft, with being responsible for the deaths of the occupants of the accident aircraft. The chief allegations against Northwest included the negligence of the pilots in failing to (1) set the flaps and slats for takeoff, (2) perform a proper checklist to ensure proper configuration for takeoff, and (3) perform mandatory stall recovery procedures. MDC was alleged to have provided Northwest with a defective warning system within the accident aircraft.3 Both of the Defendants denied these allegations.4

Shortly thereafter, Northwest filed cross-claims and third-party complaints for contribution and indemnity against MDC, TI,5 NCR,6 CAE,7 and the United States Government.8 In turn, MDC filed cross-claims and counterclaims for contribution and indemnity against Northwest. In separate but related lawsuits, Northwest filed complaints against MDC and the other Third-Party Defendants, seeking damages from them for, among other things, the loss of the aircraft hull.

On December 9, 1987, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) ordered the transfer of all Northwest Flight 255 federal cases to this district for consolidated pretrial proceedings. On August 18, 1989, all of the multidistrict litigation cases were transferred to, and consolidated in, this court for trial. Order, In re Air Crash Disaster at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Detroit, Michigan on August 16, 1987, 737 F.Supp. 391 (E.D.Mich.1989).

On April 18, 1988, this court appointed a Plaintiffs' Steering Committee (PSC), consisting of six experienced mass disaster attorneys, to pursue pretrial matters on behalf of all of the multidistrict federal Plaintiffs. See Practice and Procedure Order No. 2, MDL No. 742, at 3-4 (E.D.Mich. April 18, 1988); see also Order, MDL No. 742, at 10 (E.D.Mich. August 18, 1989) (stating intention of court to appoint PSC to serve as trial counsel for prosecuting joint liability trial on behalf of all Plaintiffs).

The pretrial proceedings were extensive, consuming over two years and resulting in over 200 days of depositions, 1,400 docket entries, and 175 written orders by this court. The first witness at trial was sworn on October 12, 1989. The trial proceedings followed the path of the pretrial proceedings in terms of consumption of time, number of issues, docket entries, exhibits, and court orders.

Against this trial background were continuous settlement negotiations by the parties and, in some instances, a complete resolution of a disputed issue or claim. As an example, Northwest settled a number of individual cases prior to the start of the joint liability trial, some of which involved stipulations not to contest liability in exchange for a compensatory damages-only trial.

After considering various proposals with respect to the procedure for addressing all of the issues in the case, this court determined that it would resolve the litigation through a sequence of trials. First, a joint liability trial involving the claims of all nonsettling Plaintiffs against Northwest and MDC, and of all claims for contribution and indemnity between Northwest and MDC, would be conducted.9 Second, damage trials would follow in order to determine the amount of the compensation that would be payable to the nonsettling Plaintiffs and to those Plaintiffs who accepted damages-only stipulations. Third, a second liability trial would be held to resolve Northwest's third-party claims.

Jury selection for the joint liability trial began on October 2, 1989. During the voir dire, Northwest advised the court, in camera, that it had reached a settlement with (1) the Plaintiffs whose claims were governed by the Warsaw Convention, workers' compensation statutes, or the provisions of an employee flight pass, and (2) the vast majority of the paying passengers who were injured or deceased as a result of the accident. Subsequent to the consummation of these settlements, this court permitted those Plaintiffs who had declined to settle with Northwest to sever their claims against the air carrier from the liability trial. As a result of these events, the litigative posture of the joint liability trial commenced with (1) the Plaintiffs pursuing their claims against MDC only, (2) Northwest remaining in the case as a Third-Party Plaintiff and pursuing its claims against MDC, and (3) MDC seeking relief against Northwest through an adjudication of its cross-claims and counterclaims.

On February 14, 1990, MDC reached settlements with a wrongful death claimant and the remaining personal injury claimants. On March 28, 1990, this court was advised by MDC of the likelihood of its settlements with most or all of the remaining Plaintiffs.

On April 6, 1990, the last Plaintiff accepted MDC's offer of settlement. On August 16, 1990 and following the final submission of the requisite documentation by the Plaintiffs, this court determined that there were no Plaintiffs remaining in the joint liability trial. On September 4, 1990, this court granted the PSC's motion to be relieved of all further responsibility of attending and participating in the trial.

On May 8, 1991, the jury reached a verdict and found Northwest to be responsible for the accident. See Verdict Form (Attachment A). On May 31, 1991, a final judgment on these claims was entered by the court. See Final Judgment On Claims Between Northwest Airlines and McDonnell Douglas (Attachment B). Subsequently, this court denied Northwest's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, as well as its alternative motion for a new trial, but granted in part its motion to amend the judgment. See October 1, 1991 Amended Final Judgment (Attachment C). Northwest filed its notice of appeal from these judgments on October 24, 1991.

II.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Sixth Circuit) follows the minority view that federal standards govern summary judgment motions in diversity cases. Lewis Refrigeration Co. v. Sawyer Fruit, Vegetable and Cold Storage Co., 709 F.2d 427, 430 n. 3 (6th Cir.1983). Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, a summary judgment may be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." In 1984, the Sixth Circuit opined that "a fact is `material' and precludes grant of summary judgment if proof of that fact would have the effect of establishing or refuting one of the essential elements of the cause of action or defense asserted by the parties, and would necessarily affect the...

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