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Nice v. L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 22, 2018

KIMBERLY A. NICE, a personal representative of the estate of Shawn R. Nice 1st Lt USMC deceased, H.N., a minor child, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
L-3 COMMUNICATIONS VERTEX AEROSPACE LLC, ESTATE OF CHARLES HAROLD MCDANIEL, Defendants-Appellants.

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 3:12-cv-00009-MCR-CJK

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, DUBINA, Circuit Judge, and ABRAMS, [*] District Judge.

          PER CURIAM

         Kimberly Nice filed this wrongful death action against L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace and the Estate of Charles McDaniel after a Navy aircraft crashed during a training exercise, killing her husband and everyone else on board. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on political question grounds, which the district court denied. The defendants appeal that order, contending that interlocutory review is proper under the collateral order doctrine and, alternatively, that it is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         First Lieutenant Shawn Nice was training as a navigator on a Navy-owned jet aircraft during a training exercise when the aircraft crashed in north Georgia. Charles McDaniel, a Navy-approved pilot and Vertex employee, was piloting the aircraft when it crashed. An investigation showed that the aircraft was travelling at a speed of 330 knots when a malfunction caused an inadvertent left rudder movement, which McDaniel countered by moving the rudder to the right. McDaniel's attempt to compensate for the malfunction at that speed broke the tail apart, causing the crash.

          Nice's wife filed this wrongful death action against Vertex and McDaniel's estate. She claimed that McDaniel's negligent response to the malfunction caused the tail to fail and the aircraft to crash. The defendants raised the affirmative defense of comparative fault by the Navy, arguing that the Navy's choice of the aircraft, selection of the mission speed and altitude, and oversights in the training manual contributed in whole or in part to the crash.[1] The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that their comparative fault defense would require the jury to evaluate sensitive Navy decisions, making the case nonjusticiable under the political question doctrine.

         The district court denied the motion, finding that the negligence claim hinged on McDaniel's reaction to the malfunction, which had nothing to do with the Navy's decisions. The defendants appealed that order, asserting appellate jurisdiction as of right under the collateral order doctrine. The defendants also filed a petition for permission to appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), which permits discretionary interlocutory appeals, and a motions panel of this Court granted that petition.[2]

          II. DISCUSSION

         We have jurisdiction over "appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1291. A decision "is considered final and appealable only if it ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment, " W.R. Huff Asset Mgmt. Co. v. Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., L.P., 566 F.3d 979, 984 (11th Cir. 2009), so denials of a motion to dismiss are normally not considered final under § 1291, see Foy v. Schantz, Schatzman & Aaronson, P.A., 108 F.3d 1347, 1350 (11th Cir. 1997).

         This appeal presents two jurisdictional issues: (1) whether the district court's order is appealable as of right under the collateral order doctrine, which is an exception to the final judgment rule, and (2) whether we should exercise our discretion to permit the defendants' appeal under § 1292(b).

         A. Collateral Order Issue

         The collateral order doctrine recognizes "a small category of decisions that, although they do not end the litigation, must nonetheless be considered final." In re Hubbard, 803 F.3d 1298, 1305 (11th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted). That small category "includes only decisions that are conclusive, that resolve important questions separate from the merits, and that are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action." Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter, 558 U.S. 100, 106, 130 S.Ct. 599, 605 (2009). Nice does not contest the first two requirements. As for the third requirement, the defendants argue that without an immediate appeal their comparative fault defense will require the jury to second-guess sensitive Navy decisions, which harms the public's interest in separation of powers, and a later appeal will not undo that damage. That argument fails.[3]

         Courts cannot engage in an "individualized jurisdictional inquiry" to determine whether a decision fits into the small category of collateral order decisions. Id. at 107, 130 S.Ct. at 605 (quotation marks omitted).[4] That is exactly what the defendants want us to do here. Their argument that an immediate appeal is necessary to stop a jury from second-guessing the Navy's decisions turns on the Navy's choice of the aircraft, selection of the mission speed and altitude, and instructions in the training manual, all of which are facts peculiar to this case. Instead of delving into those facts, we must focus on whether the "class of claims, taken as a whole, can be adequately vindicated" by means other than an immediate appeal. Id.[5] The defendants can raise their subject matter jurisdiction argument after final judgment, [6] and their argument that the court's order may be burdensome in "ways that are only imperfectly reparable by appellate reversal of a final district court judgment . . . has never sufficed" to satisfy the third condition. Id. (quotation marks omitted); see also Digital Equip. Corp. v. Desktop Direct, Inc., 511 U.S. 863, 873, 114 S.Ct. 1992, 1998-99 (1994) (stating that "virtually every right that could be enforced appropriately by pretrial dismissal might loosely be described as ...


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