Disassembling Assembler Liability: Are OEMs Strictly Liable for PMA Parts in Aviation Cases?

October 11, 2017 Published Work
Journal of Air Law and Commerce

I. Introduction

Imagine that a plane crashes and that the pilot and three passengers are tragically killed. An investigation reveals a potential problem with the "gadget," a component part of the aircraft. Investigators find that the gadget, which is essential to the operation of the aircraft, had a design defect that probably caused the accident. The representatives of the estates of the deceased passengers sue the aircraft manufacturer asserting several causes of action, including strict liability based on an alleged design defect. Under these facts, the aircraft manufacturer could be held strictly liable for the accident in virtually every jurisdiction under a doctrine commonly known as "assembler liability." According to this doctrine, "a manufacturer/ assembler who incorporates a defective component part into [its] finished product and places the finished product into the stream of commerce is liable in tort to one injured as a re-sult of a defect in the component part." This principle of liability applies notwithstanding the fact that the assembler did not design or manufacture the component part.

But just how far does this liability extend? Imagine that the gadget was not the same gadget installed when the original manufacturer assembled and sold the aircraft, but rather an aftermarket replacement part. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, third parties can manufacture and sell replacement parts under a process known as parts manufacturer approval (PMA), which requires the third-party manufacturer essentially to demonstrate equivalency between the original and replacement parts. This article examines the relatively uncharted issue of an original equipment manufacturer's (OEM) potential exposure to strict liability for a third-party supplier's defective PMA replacement part. Analogous issues have arisen in other product liability contexts, with most courts adopting a "bright-line" rule that the manufacturer of an assembled product cannot be held strictly liable for a design defect in a replacement component part that it did not manufacture, sell, or otherwise distribute, even where that replacement part was identical to the original. However, recent decisions from the highest courts of Maryland, New York, and California have departed from that bright-line rule in asbestos cases, allowing a manufacturer to be held strictly liable for components it did not design, manufacture, or sell.7 This emerging trend begs the question of whether the bright-line rule should continue to apply to other products cases, and for the reasons discussed below, this article concludes that it should apply to aviation cases.

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