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Hamilton v. MPB Corp.

Superior Court of Delaware

October 25, 2019

DAVID L. HAMILTON and JUDY HAMILTON, Plaintiffs,
v.
MPB CORPORATION d/b/a TIMKEN SUPER PRECISION, a Delaware Corporation, ET AL., Defendants.

          Submitted: July 24, 2019

         Upon consideration of MPB Corporation d/b/a TIMKEN's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint DENIED

          Jason D. Warren, Esquire, SHELSBY & LEONI, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware. Keith L. Maynard, Esquire, Spohrer & Dodd, P.L., Jacksonville, Florida. Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

          Christian J. Singewald, Esquire and Christopher S. Marques, WHITE AND WILLIAMS LLP, Wilmington, Delaware. Attorneys for Defendant, MPB Corporation d/b/a Timken Super Precision.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Charles E. Butler Judge.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Complaint in this case arises from near fatal injuries resulting from a helicopter mishap in Dothan, Alabama.[1] It is alleged that Plaintiff David Hamilton was a civilian flight instructor on a helicopter manufactured or maintained by one or more of the Defendants. While on a training flight, the helicopter suffered an engine failure and was force landed with some injury to Mr. Hamilton.[2]

         It is further alleged that this mishap occurred while Plaintiff Hamilton was conducting training of two servicemen who were also in the helicopter when it malfunctioned.[3] Because the helicopter was owned by the U.S. Army, the Army undertook an investigation into the cause of the accident and determined that the helicopter failed because of a failure of the internal drive bearing within the power turbine governor.[4] It is alleged that Defendants Honeywell and Rolls Royce knew of the possibility of failure of these parts and issued safety bulletins prescribing remediation of the problem.[5] Finally, it is alleged that other crash safety features of the helicopter failed to deploy during the emergency, exacerbating Plaintiffs injuries.[6]

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiffs filed their original Complaint on March 16, 2018 about one week before the two-year anniversary of the crash.[7] The original Complaint named multiple parties and "Fictitious Defendants 1-30" as Defendants.[8]

         On May 9, 2018, Plaintiffs amended the Complaint to add Defendant Kansas Aviation of Independence, LLC, whom Plaintiffs allege is the company that performed an overhaul of the drive bearing and power turbine governor on the subject helicopter.[9] In all other respects, the Complaints are the same.

         Neither the original Complaint nor the Amended Complaint named MPB Corporation d/b/a Timken Super Precision ("Timken") as a Defendant. Rather, some eight months later, Plaintiffs sought leave to file a Second Amended Complaint naming Timken.[10] The allegation against Timken is that it was identified by Defendant Honeywell as the company that manufactured the drive bearing in the power turbine governor that failed during the flight.[11] In all other respects, the Second Amended Complaint repeats the allegations of the previous versions.[12]

         Without opposition, Plaintiffs' motion to file the Second Amended Complaint was granted.[13] Defendant Timken then filed the instant motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint, which has been fully briefed and is now before the Court.[14]

         For purposes of completing the procedural history, I should note here that Defendant Honeywell has filed a cross-claim against Defendant Timken, and Timken has filed a claim for contribution and/or indemnification from Defendant Honeywell.[15] It would appear, therefore, that Timken's motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs Second Amended Complaint will not have the effect of dismissing the action as to Timken as it will nonetheless be required to remain in the case to sort out its rights and liabilities with respect to Honeywell.

         PARTIES' POSITIONS

         A. Defendant's Position

         In Delaware, the statute of limitations for an action for personal injuries is 2 years from the date the cause of action accrues.[16] The Amended Complaint naming Timken was filed well after the statute ran, and no facts are alleged that would toll the statute. Moreover, the Amended Complaint does not relate back to the filing of the original Complaint under D.R.C.P. Rule 15 because it fails under Rule 15(c), which requires that:

1. The claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading
2. The party to be brought in by an amendment has received such notice of the institution of the action that the party will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense on the merits; and
3. Knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against the party.

         The first mention of Timken is in Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave of Court to amend the Complaint, filed in December 2018, some 300 days after the running of the statute of limitations.[17] Timken represents that a Defendant (Honeywell) did advise Timken of the existence of the lawsuit in November 2018, but even this informal notice is well beyond expiration of the statute of limitations, even as extended by 120 days to account for service of process.[18] Plaintiffs' failure to do their research and know of Timken as a potential defendant is not a mistake concerning the identity of a party that D.R.C.P. Rule 15 was designed to ameliorate and Timken had no reason to know that but for a mistake, it would have been named.

         B. Plaintiffs' Position

         Plaintiffs urge that Alabama's 2-year statute of limitations applies, not Delaware's.[19] Unlike Delaware, Alabama law permits the use of fictitious defendants as a place holder for later named defendants.[20] Because the crash and resultant injuries all occurred in Alabama, applying Delaware's choice of law rules, the Court should apply Alabama law.[21]

         In the alternative, if the Court applies Delaware's relation back rule, Plaintiffs at a minimum seek to conduct limited discovery into when and how Timken knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, it would have been named as a defendant.[22]

         Plaintiffs advise that the crash was investigated by the U.S. Army and Plaintiffs were limited in the information they were able to glean from the Army's redacted investigation.[23] Apparently Timken and Honeywell have a close business relationship and Plaintiffs suspect that Timken had notice of the crash quite early on.[24]

         Plaintiffs note that the Court previously issued a stay of all discovery at the request of the then existent parties while they entered into settlement discussions.[25]Therefore, Plaintiffs repudiate any claim of prejudice as to Timken.[26]

         ANALYSIS

         A. Alabama law applies

         The first point worth recalling is that this complaint involves a helicopter mishap in Alabama.[27] The helicopter was owned by the U.S. Army and housed at Fort Rucker, Alabama.[28] The Plaintiffs are residents of Alabama.[29] Each of the Defendants were incorporated in Delaware, but save for its state of incorporation, Delaware has no relationship to the parties or the cause of action.[30]

          Our Supreme Court has said "When plaintiffs choose not to sue in the place where they were injured or where they live, or even in the jurisdiction whose law they contend applies, but instead in a jurisdiction with no connection to the litigation, our trial courts should be extremely cautious not to intrude on the legitimate interests of other sovereign states."[31] The Restatement (Second), Conflict of Laws §146 provides that in personal injury actions,

[T]he local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in ยง 6 to the occurrence and the ...

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