Today it was reported that seven Marines were killed when two military helicopters collided over the Yuma Training Range Complex on the Arizona-California border. The Marine Corps is conducting an investigation. This terrible tragedy raises multiple legal issues which will eventually have to be addressed by the Marine Corps and the survivors of the deceased Marines.
Because the Marines killed were on active duty when the accident occurred, their families are barred from filing a negligence claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The longstanding Feres doctrine enunciated by the Supreme Court limits any damage recovery by the families to military and VA benefits. Of course, those families will also be entitled to the $400,000 SGLI insurance coverage applied to all military members who die on active duty. There is, however, one other possible source of recovery. If the accident was caused by a defective design or mechanical part contained on either helicopter, the families could file a claim against the manufacturer and seek damages under a products liability theory. Such claims can be successful depending on the facts.
Aircraft manufacturers are liable for any defective product they produce even if that product is sold to the government. Military members injured or killed as a result of such defects are entitled to sue the manufacturer just like any other citizen. In most such cases, however, the manufacturer will interpose the “government contractor defense” to avoid liability. The government contractor defense states that a manufacturer can hide behind the Feres doctrine if it can prove that the product causing the accident was built to the government’s specifications or was inspected by the government and accepted for delivery. This is a very sophisticated defense which turns on technical facts and expert evidence. Still, numerous military families have recovered damages against defense contractors, and this theory of liability should always be investigated.