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Trans States Airlines v. Pratt & Whitney Canada

June 19, 1996

TRANS STATES AIRLINES, FORMERLY RESORT AIR, INC., D/B/A TRANS WORLD EXPRESS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

PRATT & WHITNEY CANADA, INCORPORATED, A SUBSIDIARY OF UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION, A CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 92 C 1658 Ruben Castillo, Judge.

Before COFFEY, DIANE P. WOOD, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED JANUARY 18, 1996

DECIDED JUNE 19, 1996

Whenever we are called upon to decide an issue for which state law provides the rule of decision, the Rules of Decision Act, 28 U.S.C. sec. 1652, and the doctrine of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), require us to ascertain what state law requires as accurately as we possibly can. Parties should not have an incentive to switch from a state courtroom to a federal courtroom in the hopes of altering the substantive law that applies to their cases. As a federal court, however, we operate under one critical limitation that does not exist for the state judiciary: when the state law is unsettled, or there is a possibility that it may change or evolve, only the state court has the authority to resolve the matter definitively.

Notwithstanding this advantage of litigating in state court, parties continue to exercise their undoubted right to file lawsuits in federal court under the diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. sec. 1332, and unsettled questions of state law continue to arise. In the normal case, the federal courts consult decisions of the state supreme court, state appellate courts, and any other source of guidance, and they do the best they can. When the question is truly unsettled, however, and when its resolution will be determinative of the outcome, a federal court may have the option of certifying the issue to the state supreme court, which in turn may choose to take the case and provide the authoritative answer.

We have concluded that the case before us is an ideal candidate for certification to the Illinois Supreme Court, pursuant to the procedure set forth in Rule 20 of that Court's rules. We explain in this opinion why we believe that there are "questions as to the law of [Illinois], which may be determinative of the . . . cause," and why there appear to be "no controlling precedents in the decisions" of the Illinois Supreme Court. We hereby respectfully request the Supreme Court of Illinois to answer the following questions:

1. For purposes of the economic loss doctrine, as developed by the Illinois Supreme Court in Moorman Manufacturing Co. v. National Truck Co., 9 Ill. 2d 69, 435 N.E.2d 443 (1982), Vaughan v. General Motors Corp., 102 Ill. 2d 431, 466 N.E.2d 195 (Ill. 1984), Board of Education v. A, C and S, Inc., 131 Ill. 2d 428, 546 N.E.2d 580 (1989), and In re Illinois Bell Switching Station Litigation, 161 Ill. 2d 233, 641 N.E.2d 440 (1994), does Illinois recognize a "sudden and calamitous occurrence" exception to the doctrine under which recovery in tort is possible for injury to the single product?

2. Can a product and one of its component parts ever constitute two separate products, and if so, did the airframe and the engine that failed in this case constitute a single product or two distinct products?

For the reasons set forth below, we believe that the answers to these questions will definitively resolve the dispute now before us.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On July 17, 1991, Trans States Airlines Flight 7128 left St. Louis, Missouri, for Peoria, Illinois, as scheduled. The left engine on the ATR 42-300 airplane had operated safely for nearly two years and more than 5,500 flight hours. On the plane's final approach to the Peoria airport, the left engine failed catastrophically, catching fire and shutting down. After regaining control of the plane, the pilot was able to land safely. The crew quickly evacuated the passengers and, working with airport firefighters, extinguished the fire without further incident. The post-incident investigation revealed that the engine failed after some of its interturbine duct (ITD) bolts loosened and fractured in flight. Bolt fragments hit the engine's power turbine blades, damaging the blades and causing an imbalance overload of the power turbine rotor. The resulting fire damaged both the engine and the body of the aircraft.

Discovery revealed that Pratt & Whitney had been concerned for some time prior to the accident about the ability of the ITD bolts to withstand the high temperatures to which they were exposed during flight. Pratt & Whitney engineers raised this concern in various memoranda, prompting the company to conduct a number of tests. Following the tests, the engineers recommended certain modifications, and Pratt & Whitney began monitoring ITD bolt failures in the field. Pratt & Whitney did not, however, alter the engine or the maintenance procedure before July 17, 1991.

Pratt & Whitney manufactured the allegedly defective engine in 1988. It sold the engine to Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale, Usine de Toulouse, Service de Comptabilte (Aerospatiale), a large French aircraft manufacturer, under a written sales contract that included an express warranty clause. Aerospatiale incorporated the engine into one of its ATR 42-300 airplanes, which it sold to McDonnell Douglas Finance Corporation (MDFC), passing Pratt & Whitney's warranty through to MDFC. MDFC then leased the ...


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