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STRAUSS v. DELTA AIR LINES

March 30, 1967

Kurt STRAUSS, Plaintiff,
v.
DELTA AIR LINES, INC., Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SHERIDAN

This is a civil action by plaintiff, Kurt Strauss, against defendant, Delta Air Lines, Inc., to recover damages for personal injuries suffered by plaintiff while a passenger on an airplane owned and operated by defendant.

 Plaintiff is a citizen of Pennsylvania. Defendant is a Louisiana corporation with its principal place of business in Atlanta, Georgia. The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332. The parties stipulated that the substantive law of Pennsylvania applies.

 On May 12, 1960, plaintiff, a paying passenger, boarded defendant's DC-8 airplane, bearing serial No. N805E, for a one-way flight from Chicago, Illinois, to Miami, Florida. He seated himself in one of the rear seats alongside the aisle and fastened his seat belt across his abdomen in the usual way. The seat belt remained fastened until the accident occurred. As the airplane approached the Miami airport, it encountered brief, but violent, turbulence during which plaintiff's seat belt broke. He was hurled out of his seat, striking his head against and partially penetrating the overhead of the cabin. Defendant admitted that the seat belt broke at its insertion on the left side; that seat belts as such are intended for the safety of passengers against turbulence and also the type of turbulence that was encountered on May 12, 1960; and that at the time of the accident the plane was descending at about 1200 to 1500 feet a minute, with a speed of about 290 to 305 knots.

 The seat was attached to the aircraft frame. On the back of the seat and at the bottom, a torque tube or bar, approximately two inches in diameter, ran across the width of the seat. A cable, part of the seat belt assembly, fitted or looped around the torque tube at each side of the seat. The "barrel portion," which looked like a whistle, was at one end of the cable. When the cable was looped around the torque bar, the barrel portion was fitted into a "swaged ball" joint. The swaged ball was attached to the other end of the cable and the webbed belt part of the seat belt. The cable consisted of a number of strands of wire completely covered by a plastic sheath. Defendant admitted that failure of the seat belt took place in the cable in the area of the swaged ball end fitting.

 N805E was the fifth of six DC-8 airplanes acquired by Delta from Douglas Aircraft Corporation. It had been delivered to Delta on November 5, 1959. At the time of the accident, 1363 flight hours had been accumulated. The earliest DC-8 acquired by Delta, N801E, had at the time over 1815 flight hours. The latest, N806E, had 1243 flight hours. On May 13, 1960, Delta Engineering Department issued an inspection order which required an inspection of all DC-8 seat belts for frayed cable assemblies. Fraying of the cable assembly means that some of the strands of wire constituting the cable were broken. The inspection disclosed 46 frayed cables in N801, 62 in N802, 54 in N804, 8 in N805, and 21 in N806. The number in N803 was not reported. In each instance the fraying was adjacent to the attachment of the swaged ball end of the cable. As a consequence of this condition, Douglas modified the portion of the cable assembly and the barrel section to which it was secured.

 The plaintiff proceeded against the defendant on two theories of liability. First, that the cable, as installed, had a patent weakness at insertion of the cable into the swaged ball fitting, that is, that there was a potential for failure by "fatigue" at that point. Plaintiff contended that this should have been detected by a person with knowledge of maintenance and mechanics, and hence by representatives of Delta who were stationed at the Douglas plant during the time the airplanes were assembled. Second, that defendant failed to utilize an adequate inspection system which would or could have disclosed that the seat belt attachments were failing, and that had such an inspection been made, the accident would have been avoided.

 At plaintiff's request, only the liability issue was tried. The jury returned a verdict for the defendant. In his motion, plaintiff assigned several reasons for a new trial. At the request of the parties, the motion was submitted on briefs.

 Plaintiff abandoned all but two of the reasons in his motion.

 Plaintiff argues first that it was error to have permitted defendant to introduce evidence of the type of inspection that defendant would have made at a 2500-hour overhaul. As a part of its defense to the alleged failure to use a proper inspection system, defendant undertook to show the nature of its inspection and the maintenance program for DC-8's as it existed at and prior to the date of the accident. Since the DC-8's were new aircraft recently acquired by Delta, certain phases of the inspection program were in the development stage. The program, as it applied to the seat belts, had three main aspects: the daily inspection, the 220-hour flight time inspection, and the 2500-hour flight time inspection. The daily inspection merely insured that there was no visible damage or damage in a general sense. The second aspect, set forth in Delta's maintenance manual, required that at 220 flight time hour intervals, the inspectors were generally to "inspect safety belts and check security." Mr. Burnette, assistant superintendent for inspection at Delta, testified to the standard practice in carrying out these general inspection requirements. To test the cable for security the seat belt was pulled upon to see that it was secure to the seat. This test would not disclose incipient fatigue cracks or fractures of the individual strands of cable under the plastic sheathing, unless, of course, the number of strands fractured were so numerous as to permit a failure of the seat belt when one pulled upon it. The witness testified that because of the plastic sheath, "[it] is practically impossible to inspect the swaged ball end [of the cable assembly] when it is installed in the airplane." Company records showed that the seat belts were last inspected in this manner on April 24, 1960, or about 20 days before the accident occurred. That such inspection was the practice of Delta and that the records showed it had been performed was relevant to the question of the existence of absence of negligence. Cf. Haines v. Reading Co., 3 Cir. 1950, 178 F.2d 918; Universe Tankships, Inc. v. Pyrate Tank Cleaners, Inc., S.D.N.Y.1957, 152 F. Supp. 903, 930-932; Murphy v. American Barge Line Co., W.D.Pa.1948, 76 F. Supp. 276.

 None of defendant's DC-8's had 2500 flight hours at the time of the accident. Defendant contended that in view of plaintiff's claim of an inadequate inspection program, it was entitled to show that the program did provide for a fuller inspection but the time interval for reaching it had not occurred. Plaintiff objected because after the accident the seat belts were changed so that when the 2500-hour inspection was made, the airplanes had an entirely different seat belt assembly. The court limited this line of testimony to a showing of the inspection procedure at and prior to the time of the accident; to a showing of what would have been the inspection procedure at 2500 hours, if this plane had gone 2500 hours, and there had been no modification of the seat belt attachment. *fn2" Plaintiff made only a general objection to the line of testimony as limited by the court.

 The 2500-hour inspection was a major overhaul. The 2500 hours was fixed by the maintenance review board, composed of representatives of the Federal Aviation Agency, the airline industry, and aircraft manufacturers, before Delta took delivery of any DC-8's. The 2500-hour overhaul program was incorporated into FAA Operations Specifications issued to all users of the DC-8's. These specifications provided for the removal of all seats, their disassembly, and a complete inspection. There was testimony that removal of seats would include removal and inspection of seat belts. At the time of the accident, Delta had not formulated written procedures in manual form for inspection of the seat belts because the airplanes had not reached the 2500-hour point. A card system maintained by Delta, however, referred to the requirements of the specifications for the removal of seats at the time of major overhaul. On the basis of these requirements and previous experience with Douglas manufactured seats in DC-6 and DC-7 aircraft, and previous experience in the examination of seat belt cables, witnesses testified to the procedure the overhaul shop would have followed in making a 2500-hour inspection. It included a complete disassembly of the seats, seat belts, and attachment to the seat belts, the opening of the cable and an examination of the barrel and swage ball for wear, and the examination of the cable with a 10-power magnifying glass in accordance with past procedures for examination of cables. This testimony was relevant to show Delta's practices at the time the accident occurred which was relevant to the issue of an adequate inspection program. Cf. 2 Wigmore, Evidence § 376. Plaintiffs argument goes to the weight of the evidence, not to its admissibility. Moreover, in view of plaintiff's general objection after the court had imposed limitations on this testimony in accordance with his specific objections, plaintiff cannot now be heard to complain. Rule 46, Fed.R.Civ.P.

 Plaintiff next complains that the court erred in refusing to instruct the jury in accordance with plaintiff's point for charge No. 4. This point was:

 
"4. In the light of the duty of a common carrier by air for hire to exercise the highest care in the maintenance and operation of its airplanes for the safe transportation of its passengers, it cannot relieve itself of this duty by relying upon the manufacturer of the aircraft where a defective appliance exists, unless it has exercised every reasonable degree of human skill and ...

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