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John Russell, As An Executor of the Estate of v. Snfa

March 31, 2011


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 05 L 1112 Honorable Jeffrey Lawrence, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Robert E. Gordon

JUSTICE ROBERT E. GORDON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Cahill and McBride concurred in the judgment and opinion.


Plaintiff's brother died during a helicopter crash in Illinois. Defendant SNFA, a French company, made a part for that helicopter, which plaintiff claims was defective and the cause of the crash. Defendant moved to dismiss on the ground that Illinois had no jurisdiction over it, and the trial court dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction. For the reasons discussed below, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


I. The Parties

On January 28, 2003, Michael Russell (Russell) died during a helicopter crash in Illinois. Russell, who was the pilot and sole occupant, was working for Air Angels, a medical air service that did business primarily in Illinois and, in particular, Cook County. Russell died leaving a wife and two sons. Plaintiff John Russell (plaintiff) is Michael Russell's brother and the executor of Michael Russell's estate.

In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that the crash was caused, specifically, by the failure of one of the helicopter's tail-rotor drive-shaft bearings, which defendant manufactured. Plaintiff alleged that, as a result of this failure, the drive shaft fractured, leaving the tail rotor inoperable; and the helicopter spun out of control, crashing to the ground.

Defendant is a French manufacturer of both custom-made aerospace bearings and helicopter tail-rotor bearings.

II. The Product at Issue

In its brief to this court, defendant admitted the following facts.

The helicopter involved in the accident was an A 109 helicopter manufactured by Agusta S.P.A. (Agusta) in Italy in 1989. The helicopter contained seven tail-rotor bearings manufactured by defendant. These bearings were custom-made by defendant for use in Agusta's A 109 helicopters. The helicopter in question had several owners and operators. In 1998, a German company sold it to Metro Aviation in Louisiana, which in turn sold it to Air Angels, which was Russell's employer at the time of the crash.

In 1998 and again in 2002, Metro Aviation replaced some of the bearings. The replacement bearings had been manufactured by defendant in France, and then sold to Agusta in Italy, which in turn sold them to its American subsidiary, Agusta Aerospace Corporation (Agusta AC), which then sold them to Metro Aviation in Louisiana. Defendant acknowledges that Agusta AC sells SNFA's custom-made bearings to owners of A109 aircraft around the world.

Specifically for Agusta, defendant manufactures several different custom-made tail-rotor bearings. Agusta provides defendant with precise specifications, and defendant manufactures the bearings according to those specifications. Defendant acknowledges that it knows that its custom-made tail-rotor bearings are incorporated by Agusta into helicopters and also sold as individual replacement parts.

Defendant states that it is in the business of providing custom-made bearings, mostly to European customers. Defendant manufactures custom-made bearings for both the aerospace industry and for helicopters. Defendant claims that it has no American customers for its helicopter bearings, but admits that it does have three American customers for its aerospace bearings: (1) Rolls Royce, a jet-engine manufacturer; (2) Honeywell, an engine manufacturer; and (3) Hamilton Sundstrand, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation.

C. Orders Appealed From

On August 26, 2010, the trial court granted defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, but it stayed the order. The trial court's written order stated that its ruling was "made in accordance w/ [sic] transcript." In open court, the trial court explained, as follows, why it rejected plaintiff's claim that defendant was doing business in Illinois:

"Now, in the case before me, there is no office, there is no showing whatsoever of the derivation of a substantial portion of overall business in Illinois.

There is only the most minimal showing of physical presence in Illinois. Two visits are discussed, but only one of those visits falls within the parameter of which the cases say the Court should consider, in determining the existence of general jurisdiction.

So, I selected a slightly broader period of two-anda-half years, but the first visit was in 2000, and the ...

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