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Altman v. Liberty Helicopters

July 29, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ludwig, J.


This death benefits action arises from a collision on August 8, 2009 between a helicopter and a private plane over the Hudson River. Jurisdiction is the Federal Tort Claims Act. 28 U.S.C. § 1346.*fn1

Plaintiff Jaclyn Altman commenced the action on behalf of herself and as Executrix of the Estate of Daniel Altman, her husband, and as Administratrix of the Estate of Douglas Altman, her minor son. These decedents were passengers on a Piper N71MC aircraft operated by a private pilot. Defendants are the United States of America (Federal Aviation Administration), LCA Partnership (owner of the aircraft), Pamela Altman, Executrix of the Estate of Steven P. Altman (the deceased pilot), and Liberty Helicopters, Inc. (the operator of the helicopter involved in the collision). Also sued in the original complaint was Meridian Consulting I Corporation, Inc., the helicopter owner. On March 11, 2010, plaintiff filed an amended complaint against all defendants except Meridian*fn2.

Defendant Liberty moves to dismiss on the ground that Meridian is a necessary party that was deliberately omitted from the amended complaint, Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a),*fn3 and also an indispensable party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(b).*fn4 In the alternative, Liberty requests that the action be transferred to the District of New Jersey, 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).*fn5 For the reasons that follow, Liberty's motion to dismiss the complaint will be denied as moot. Its motion to transfer the action to the District of New Jersey will be granted without prejudice to the issue of that district's jurisdiction.

According to the undisputed record,*fn6 Meridian owned the helicopter involved in the accident. The lease was a "dry lease" in which Meridian supplied the helicopter and Liberty paid rent and was responsible for the aircraft's operation and maintenance, and provided pilots, passenger amenities, licensing and certification of equipment and personnel, and met all other flight requirements. "Declaration in Lieu of Oath of Christopher Vellios, Chief Operating Officer of Meridian Consulting I Corporation."

The original complaint alleged that Liberty and Meridian were subsidiaries of each other or were engaged in a joint business enterprise. ¶ 11-12; and further that Liberty and Meridian owned, operated and maintained the helicopter, and were both vicariously liable for the acts, omissions and negligence of the helicopter pilot, ¶ 22-23. Counts I and IV of the original complaint purport to state claims for negligence against Liberty and Meridian based on, inter alia: not utilizing air traffic avoidance equipment or monitoring air traffic communication; fostering a work environment that put profits over risk; not having a tour guide or lookout who could have permitted the pilot to concentrate solely on safe flight; not training pilots, and using flight plans that increased the risk of collision in heavily congested air space.

The amended complaint repeats these allegations as to Liberty, but omits Meridian as a party. Liberty's position is that this action cannot proceed without Meridian and must be dismissed. In the alternative, Liberty requests transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).

Under Rule 19, "a court must first determine whether a party should be joined if 'feasible' under Rule 19(a). If a party should be joined but joinder is not feasible..., the court must then determine whether the absent party is 'indispensable' under Rule 19(b). If the party is indispensable, the action cannot go forward." Janney Montgomery Scott, Inc. v. Shepard Niles, Inc., 11 F.3d 399, 404 (3d Cir. 1993) (citations omitted).

Rule 19(a) is a two-part analysis. First: can complete relief be afforded to the parties in the action in the absence of the unjoined party? This "inquiry is limited to whether the district court can grant complete relief to the persons already parties to the action. The effect a decision may have on the absent party is not material." Janney, 11 F.3d at 405. Here, given the nature of the original allegations against Meridian and Liberty*fn7 - and the availability of joint and several liability - plaintiff appears to be able to obtain complete relief on her claims without the presence of Meridian. This factor weighs against a finding that Meridian is necessary.

However, a finding that a party is necessary may result under either Rule 19(a)(1) or 19(a)(2). "Clauses (1) and (2) of Rule 19(a) are phrased in the disjunctive and should be so treated." Janney, 11 F.3d 405 (citations omitted). Under Rule 19(a)(2), the issue is: What effect will resolution of the dispute among the present parties have on the absent party?

This also involves two questions. First, would a decision impair or impede Meridian's rights in the subject matter of the litigation? Rule 19(a)(2)(i). In this instance, a decision regarding the cause of the accident and the relative liability of the parties involved would impair Meridian's ability to protect itself. It would not be present to assert cross-claims or provide evidence as to the potential liability of other parties. Given that Meridian is alleged to have actively participated in decisions that resulted in the death of plaintiff's decedents, its presence is crucial to a determination of liability, Whyham v. Piper Aircraft Corp., 96 F.R.D. 557, 561 (M.D. Pa. 1982) (Scottish companies that owned and maintained aircraft were necessary and indispensable parties in action by plaintiff's decedent against estate of deceased pilot.)

Further, the evidence of record is that a lessor-lessee relationship existed between Liberty and Meridian. A decision as to their relative contractual rights - including issues of release and indemnification and resulting liability to plaintiff - could affect Meridian's rights under the lease vis-a-vis its liability to plaintiff. This factor suggests that Meridian is necessary.

The second part of Rule 19(a)(2) entails whether continuation of the action without Meridian would expose an existing party to "a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations." Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a)(2)(ii). A finding of liability against Liberty could result in further litigation as to its entitlement to indemnification from Meridian either as a result of this contractual relationship or because of tort law. These issues would not be actionable if Meridian were joined in this action. This factor, too, suggests that Meridian is a necessary party.

As a necessary party under Rule 19(a)(2), is Meridian's joinder feasible? The negative answer is that principles of due process will not permit this court's ...

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