Robert Frola [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)]
CHICAGO — A state appeals court has upheld a Cook County judge, who ruled a Texas-based aviation company must face a lawsuit in Cook County court over an airplane crash, solely because the company marketed products to Illinois customers.
Cook County Judge Daniel Gillespie rejected a motion to dismiss from RAM Aircraft, which hoped to end a legal action from the estates of seven men who died in an April 7, 2015, Illinois plane crash. Gillespie first consolidated the lawsuits alleging RAM was negligent in its overhaul, repair and testing of an airplane controller, left engine and other parts. He then rejected RAM's contention the case doesn't belong in Illinois court, because the company has no real ties to the state.
A three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court ruled on RAM’s appeal of Gillespie’s opinion. Justice Carl Anthony Walker wrote the May 13 decision; Justices Daniel Pierce and John Griffin concurred. The decision was issued as an unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under very limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.
According to the appellate opinion, RAM is registered only in Texas, performs almost all of its work there and has no officer, property or assets in Illinois.
“In the fiscal year ending in 2011, Illinois customers accounted for barely 1 percent of RAM's revenues; in the fiscal year ending in 2013, Illinois customers accounted for a little more than 2.5 percent of RAM’s revenues,” Walker wrote. “Sales to Illinois customers in other years from 2010 through 2015 fell between the 2011 level and the 2013 level.”
The company advertises in nationwide aviation publications, and RAM operations director Rick Roper said his company sold parts to at least seven Illinois companies. The maintenance record for the crashed plane shows RAM overhauled the left engine in December 23, then shipped it and a controller to G&N Aircraft in Indiana, which then shipped the parts to Synergy Flight Center in Illinois, where they were installed.
Walker said the panel’s decision followed a 2013 Illinois Supreme Court opinion in Russell v. SNFA, in which the estate of a helicopter pilot was allowed to sue SNFA, a French company that makes aircraft bearings, because, although it had no direct U.S. customers for its helicopter bearings, it sold other aircraft bearings to three American companies, including one with an Illinois division.
The panel said the issue in Russell as well as the RAM case isn’t general jurisdiction, but specific, which requires a plaintiff to show “the defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and the cause of action arose out of or relates to the defendant’s contacts with the forum state,” per the Russell opinion.
“The Russell court found that SNFA’s business relationship with an Illinois customer proved that SNFA ‘benefitted from Illinois’ system of laws, infrastructure and business climate,’ even though the Illinois customer installed SNFA’s products in California, and the Illinois office only processed the payments,” Walker wrote.
According to the panel, RAM considered general aviation fleet owners, including those in Illinois, as its target market. It also followed the Russell opinion in establishing “Illinois has an indisputable interest in resolving litigation stemming from a fatal Illinois accident. … The burden on a Texas company defending itself in Illinois is not as heavy (as) the burden on a French company defending itself in Illinois.”
The panel affirmed Gillespie’s opinion, allowing the consolidated lawsuits to proceed.
According to Cook County court records, plaintiffs in the case have been represented by attorneys from the firms of Schenk Annes Tepper Campbell; the Nolan Law Group; and Dudley Lake LLC.
RAM has been represented by the firm of Cremer Spina, of Chicago.