Boyle v. United Technologies Case Brief

Summary of Boyle v. United Technologies, S. Ct 487 US 500 [1988]

Defenses: Govt/Govt Contractor Immunity

Relevant Facts: David Boyle was a marine helicopter co-pilot, killed when the helicopter he was flying crashed of the coast of VA during a training exercise. He survived the crash, but was unable to escape from the helicopter and drowned. The manufacturer Sikorsky designed the copilot’s emergency escape system where the hatch opened out rather than in, and access to the hatch handle was obstructed by other equipment.

Legal Issue(s): Whether Sikorsky Helicopters could be held liable, under state tort law, involving an injury resulting from a defective design of the escape hatch as a “military defense contractor?"

Court’s Holding: No

Procedure: Jury verdict for Pl; Ct of App REVERSED and remanded judgment for DF; S. Ct AFFIRMED.

Law or Rule(s): Displacement of state laws or regulations by federal regulations or law will occur only where a ‘significant conflict’ exists between an identifiable ‘federal policy or interest and the operation of state law’ or the application of state law would frustrate specific objectives of federal legislation.

Court Rationale: The Fed Tort Claims Act, is a statutory provision that suggests the outline for ‘significant conflict,’ between federal interests and state law in the context of Govt procurement. It includes an exception to the consent to sue the govt or its employees when a claim is based on the exercise or failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty. The selection of the appropriate design for military equipment to be used by the Armed Forces is assuredly a discretionary function. The imposition of liability on Govt contractors will directly affect the terms of Govt contracts: either the contractor will decline to manufacture the design or it will raise the price. Either way the interests of the U.S. will be directly affected. A State law which holds Govt contractors liable for design defects in military equipment does in some circumstances present a ‘significant conflict’ with federal policy and must be displaced. Liability for design defects in military equipment cannot be imposed pursuant to state law, when 1) the US approved reasonably precise specifications; 2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and 3) the supplier warned the US about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the US. The 3rd condition is necessary b/c in its absence the displacement of state law would create some incentive for the manufacturer to withhold knowledge of risks.

Plaintiff’s Argument: In the absence of legislation specifically immunizing Govt contractors from liability for design defects, there is no basis for judicial recognition of such a defense.

Defendant’s Argument: Govt contractors are shielded from state tort liability as an employee of the Govt exercising discretionary functions.

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