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Strauss v. Douglas Aircraft Co.

decided: December 12, 1968.

KURT STRAUSS, APPELLANT,
v.
DOUGLAS AIRCRAFT CO., APPELLEE



Kaufman, Anderson, Circuit Judges, and Tenney, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

The dilemma to be resolved by us is how to strike a proper balance between the interest of Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a) that leave to amend a pleading "shall be freely given when justice so requires," and the possible prejudice to other parties resulting from such amendment.

Kurt Strauss appeals from a final judgment in favor of Douglas Aircraft Co. and after a trial before Judge Metzner and a jury in the Southern District of New York. He rests his claim, in part, upon a pre-trial order by Judge Tyler which belatedly allowed Douglas to amend its answer to Strauss' complaint in order to raise a defense based on California's Statute of Limitations. He also appeals from Judge Metzner's denial of his motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and from various evidentiary rulings. Strauss' action, over which we have diversity jurisdiction, asserted that because of its faulty seat belt assembly in the airplane, Douglas was responsible for damages by reason of negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability in tort.

I. THE FACTS

A. The Accident

Strauss, a paper products manufacturer from Coatesville, Pa., was a frequent air traveller, primarily for business purposes. On May 12, 1960, he boarded a DC-8 jet aircraft, built by Douglas and owned by Delta Airlines Inc. [hereinafter Delta] for a flight from Chicago, Ill. to Miami, Fla. At the trial, Strauss testified that he fastened the belt upon being seated and left it fastened during the trip, as was his custom. Within a few moments after boarding he fell asleep and when he opened his eyes again, approximately a half hour before the plane landed in Miami, he saw a physician (a fellow passenger) bending over him and informing the stewardess that Strauss would require surgery. It seems that the plane had encountered severe air turbulence over Florida and a down draft had caused it to drop precipitously. Because of this, Strauss was hurled out of his seat and struck his head on the acoustical ceiling above his seat.

Strauss' claim is grounded on his contention that the injury was caused by a defect in the "passenger seat belt cable disconnect assembly" [hereinafter cable assembly], which is designed to attach the cloth webbing portion of the belt to the frame of the seat structure. He alleged that this cable assembly, manufactured by Douglas, was rended in the downdraft, thus bringing about the buffeting he received.*fn1

The aircraft in question, was designed and manufactured by Douglas at its Long Beach, Calif. plant and delivered to Delta there (it was also sold in California) on November 4, 1959, approximately six months before the accident. At that time, the Douglas DC-8 was a relatively new plane; not one had logged more than 1860 hours of flight experience before the date of the accident. The faulted plane in this case had accumulated only 1362 flight hours and Strauss maintains that this was the first seat belt failure to occur in any DC-8.*fn2

B. The Litigation

The peripatetic history of this litigation illustrates the difficulties Strauss has encountered in having the merits of his claim against Douglas heard by a court. Strauss first commenced an action on Dec. 7, 1961 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [EDPA] against both Douglas and Delta. On Douglas' motion, it secured a dismissal from this suit on the ground that it was not amenable to service of process within that jurisdiction. While Douglas' motion was pending, Strauss filed suit against Douglas and Delta in Delaware since Douglas was a Delaware corporation. This action fell too because it was time-barred as against Douglas under the applicable one year Delaware Statute of Limitations. The claim against Delta was eventually withdrawn.

Accordingly, Strauss commenced the instant action solely against Douglas on April 6, 1962 in the Southern District of New York [SDNY].*fn3

Douglas served its original answer in the southern district action on May 14, 1962 and, after being granted five extensions of time while he pursued his EDPA litigation against Delta, Strauss filed a statement of readiness and note of issue in the SDNY action on May 13, 1965; a pretrial memorandum was served on Douglas in April, 1966. The EDPA suit, to which Strauss pinned his primary hopes of recovery, lumbered its way to trial in January, 1966 and resulted in a jury verdict and judgment in favor of Delta. Essentially, Delta's defense was that the cable assembly was a new innovation in the DC-8 and that the airline's routine safety precautions and inspections had failed to disclose any defects. Thus the EDPA trial did not foreclose, even by implication, Douglas' possible liability.

On May 12, 1966, four years after the complaint was filed in SDNY, Douglas sought leave to move to amend its answer to present -- for the first time in the course of the litigation -- its defense that California's one year Statute of Limitations on actions in implied warranty barred Strauss' cause of action in warranty or strict tort liability. The California law was applicable, it was argued, because that was the state in which the plane was sold and delivered to Delta -- the state where Strauss' cause of action accrued. Judge Tyler granted leave to amend, over Strauss' vigorous opposition, on August 10, 1966. The SDNY trial commenced on April 8, 1968, at which time Judge Metzner felt obliged to follow Judge ...


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