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Carpenter v. Lockheed Martin Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

October 21, 2019

COLETTE CARPENTER, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of CLAYTON CARPENTER, Deceased; JON TERNSTROM; and MARIA TERNSTROM, Plaintiffs,
v.
LOCKHEED MARTIN CORPORATION, a Maryland corporation doing business in Georgia, Defendant.

          ORDER

         On May 7, 2019, Plaintiffs filed this wrongful death action against Defendant Lockheed Martin Corporation ("Lockheed"). Plaintiffs' claims arise out of the tragic crash of a United States Army MH-6OM Black Hawk helicopter at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia on January 15, 2014. The crash resulted in the death of Plaintiff Colette Carpenter's decedent, Clayton Carpenter, and physical injuries to Plaintiff Jon Ternstrom. Plaintiff Maria Ternstrom claims loss of consortium and other damages.

         At present, Lockheed has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint based upon the applicable statute of limitation. In response thereto, Plaintiffs move to amend the complaint to add allegations of fraud against Lockheed - fraud that allegedly prevented Plaintiffs from filing the lawsuit against Lockheed within the limitation period. Upon review of the briefs, the record, and relevant law, the Court hereby GRANTS the motion to dismiss and DENIES AS MOOT the motion to amend the complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 15, 2014, Pilots Carpenter and Ternstrom made their approach to Hunter Army Airfield after a training flight to St. Augustine, Florida. During the approach, the helicopter suddenly and without warning experienced a failure of the tail rotor pitch change assembly and began to spin in a direction opposite to the direction of the main rotor blades. Despite executing prescribed emergency procedures for loss of tail rotor control to reduce the rate of spin, the helicopter continued out of control and impacted the ground. (Compl. ¶ 15, Doc. No. 1.)

         Both Pilots Carpenter and Ternstrom were seated in pilot seats allegedly installed by Lockheed. Plaintiffs' allegations concerning the pilot seats follow:

Both seats were designed to absorb the impact of a hard landing and to keep the pilots upright and firmly in their seats. Each seat was to have a working energy attenuating system and seatbelt system to reduce any injuries to the occupants in the event of a crash or hard landing. Both energy attenuating systems and seatbelt systems failed to work as designed.

(Id. ¶ 16.) Plaintiffs assert claims of negligence and strict liability against Lockheed.

         The MH-6OM Blackhawk helicopter involved in the crash was a United States Army Special Operations helicopter specially modified for Special Operations use and many of its components and modifications are classified. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 10.) Plaintiffs initially brought suit in a California state court in September 2014 but the case was subsequently removed to the United States District Court for the Central District of California. See Carpenter v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Case No. 2:14-cv-07793, Doc. No. 1 (CD. Calif. Oct. 8, 2014). In addition to several named defendants including Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. (collectively "Sikorsky" for ease of reference), Plaintiffs allege that they included John Doe defendants because they were unaware of the civilian companies responsible for modifying the helicopter to the Special Operations variant. (Compl. ¶ 11.) On January 9, 2015, Plaintiffs learned the L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, L.P. ("L-3") was involved in the modification of the helicopter. (Id. ¶ 12.) The prior litigation proceeded against a number of defendants including Sikorsky and L-3 throughout 2015 until 2018. (Id. ¶ 13.) Plaintiffs allege that while L-3 had initially begun the overhaul of the helicopter, it had lost the government contract and had been replaced by Lockheed. (Id.) In point of fact, it was Lockheed that inspected and installed the pilot seats in the helicopter, which Plaintiffs did not discover until the end of October 2018. (Id.)

         Plaintiffs filed the instant lawsuit against Lockheed in this Court on May 7, 2019, over five years after the accident. Lockheed filed a motion to dismiss the case based upon the applicable statute of limitation.[1] Plaintiffs responded and filed a motion to amend the complaint, seeking to add allegations of fraud against Lockheed that would justify the late filing of the instant complaint.

         The proposed amended complaint adds the following relevant background information. Plaintiffs begin their fraudulent concealment allegations with the observation that Sikorsky, an original defendant in the California action, and Lockheed "were in a unique position to know and to conceal and did conceal Lockheed's role." (Proposed Am. Compl. ¶ 14, Doc. No. 18-1.) Plaintiffs explain through their proposed allegations that Lockheed bought Sikorsky on November 6, 2015, so that when Sikorsky answered Plaintiffs' complaint on November 25, 2015, Lockheed "now wholly owned" Sikorsky. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Yet, Sikorsky denied all knowledge of the pilot seats. (Id. ¶ 17.) Plaintiffs claim that Sikorsky's answer was misleading and should have been corrected. (Id. ¶ 24.) Plaintiffs also allege that Sikorsky further concealed Lockheed's role in the installation of the seats when it responded to interrogatories on April 26, 2017. Therein, Sikorsky claimed to not be involved in the installation of the seats and disavowed any knowledge about the installation of the seats. (Id. ¶ 25.)

         Meanwhile, Plaintiffs learned in their litigation against L-3 in October 2018[2] that L-3 could not have installed the pilot seats because it had lost the contract to modify the helicopters approximately 3 months after the subject helicopter arrived at the modification facility and installation of the pilot seats occurred very late in the modification process. (Id. ¶ 19.) It was also determined that Lockheed succeeded L-3 as the modification contractor. (Id.)

         Plaintiffs filed the instant case several months later. Plaintiffs explain that they did not include their allegations of fraudulent concealment involving Lockheed and Sikorsky "so as to spare [them] from the shocking and presumably embarrassing litany of fraudulent concealment." (Pis.' Mot. to Amend Compl., Doc. No. 18, at 3-4.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) does not test whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail on the merits of the case. Rather, it tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Harris v. Proctor & Gamble Cellulose Co., 73 F.3d 321, 324 (11th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Therefore, the court must accept as true all facts alleged in the complaint and construe all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Hoffman-Pugh v. Ramsey, 312 F.3d 1222, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) . When, however, on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual ...


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