Man waited decades too long to launch his legal dogfight over fate of WWII fighter, appeals court says

By D.M. Herra | Mar 14, 2019

CHICAGO -- A federal appeals court last week clarified a ruling confirming ownership of a World War II fighter plane that has been at the heart of a legal dogfight.

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled plaintiff Richard Vartanian waited too long to claim ownership of the P-51 Mustang he claimed was stolen sometime around 1985. At the time the plane disappeared from a New York hangar, Vartanian suspected Wilbur Martin, a vintage plane aficionado who allegedly was supposed to restore the Mustang on Vartanian’s behalf.

Vartanian complained to law enforcement agencies in New York, where the plane had been stored; California, where he was located; and Illinois, where Martin was located. Martin denied taking the aircraft, but said he had purchased Mustang parts from one of Vartanian’s associates to restore a different plane that crashed in Nicaragua in 1965.

In 1998, Martin sold his restored plane to Amphib Inc., a corporation controlled by Charles Greenhill. Vartanian read about the transaction several years later in a magazine. The article incorrectly reported the serial number of the plane that Greenhill purchased was the same as the serial number of Vartanian’s missing plane. In 2004, Vartanian’s attorney prepared a tort action against Greenhill and Martin, but died before it could be filed. Vartanian never followed up.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Vartanian sought relief in court, and then only as a counterclaim after Greenhill filed for declaratory judgment that he owned the plane. The circuit court confirmed Amphib owns the aircraft free of any claim by Vartanian and did not provide Greenhill any personal rights of ownership.

In its opinion, the appeals court resolved the final question, ruling the statute of limitations prevented Vartanian from pursuing claims that Martin stole the plane, rendering him unable to legally sell it to Amphib.

“Vartanian knew in 1985 that his Mustang had vanished; he suspected Martin from the outset and had plenty of time to investigate. Indeed, he did investigate, and in Illinois having enough information to start an investigation also starts the period of limitations,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote. “Yet for more than 30 years … Vartanian did not commence civil litigation.”

Vartanian argued Martin used fraudulent concealment, which would prevent him from invoking the statute of limitations. The court replied that the period of limitations began at the moment of actual discovery.

“Illinois does not defer the limitations period until an admission of wrongdoing,” Easterbrook wrote. “That would effectively abolish all statutes of limitations, for wrongdoers rarely own up to their transgressions.”

Vartanian has no way to assert his rights to the plane are any stronger than Amphib’s, the court wrote, largely due to his own delay. At least five potential witnesses died between the plane’s disappearance in 1985 and Vartanian’s court filing in 2015. Vartanian, Greenhill and Martin are all older than 80 and have difficulty remembering events occurring decades ago, and business records from the 1960s through the 1990s have been lost, the judges said.

“It is too late for the judicial system to make a reliable decision about what happened to Vartanian’s plane (or parts of it) and which components of Greenhill’s plane might be traced to [Vartanian’s plane],” Easterbrook wrote.

Chief Judge Diane Wood and Judge Amy St. Eve concurred with the judgment.

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