Opposing attorneys disagree about whether a pending lawsuit against space shuttle rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol has been weakened by a U.S. Supreme Court decision involving government contractors.
The 5-4 decision issued Monday protects defense contractors from being sued for making defective equipment that follows government designs but causes injury or death, as long as the contractor has not concealed defects.Morton Thiokol made the booster rocket blamed for the Jan. 28, 1986, explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger and killed its seven crew members.
The Chicago-based company has reached a $7,735,000 settlement with four of the astronauts' families in which it contributed 60 percent and the government 40 percent of the money.
Jane Smith, widow of Challenger pilot Michael Smith, has a lawsuit against the company pending in federal court in Richmond, Va..
The court decision "will apply to launches such as the Challenger launch, which at least have significant military overtones," said John Adler, a Chicago attorney representing Morton Thiokol in the Smith lawsuit.
Adler said the Supreme Court decision strengthens Thiokol's defense against the Smith lawsuit.
"It could be argued that the ruling applies to any government contractor, not just those responsible for producing military or defense hardware," Adler said.
However, Smith's attorney, William F. Maready of Winston-Salem, N.C., said Tuesday the decision would not affect Morton Thiokol as a shuttle contractor.
"The decision does not apply to the Smith case," he said. The (Supreme Court decision) has to do with where the defense contractor produces military equipment according to government specifications. That's not what we're dealing with at all."
Smith contends the shuttle is not military equipment. Furthermore, he said, Smith's suit is based not on the design of the rocket motor but on a decision to launch despite warnings from Morton Thiokol engineers.
A presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster found that a leaky joint in the booster allowed hot gases to escape and ignite the main liquid fuel tank. Cold temperatures the night before the launch were found to have contributed to the failure.
"The suit against Thiokol is for launching under weather conditions where engineers told them the accident was likely to happen," Maready said.
Design was a central issue in the Supreme Court case. The justices refused to reinstate a $750,000 award to the family of David Boyle, a Marine helicopter co-pilot who died in a 1983 crash in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach, Va.
The court said companies may not be sued when they make military equipment using a design approved by the Pentagon as long as the contractors did not conceal any potential hazards from the government.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May 1986 threw out the award against the helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft, and its parent company, United Technologies Corp.