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Harman v. Honeywell International, Inc.

August 5, 2020

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently reversed a verdict in favor of the manufacturer of an airplane autopilot system in a wrongful death action. The case involved claims brought by the estates of an airplane pilot and his passenger who were killed when their airplane crashed shortly after takeoff. The estates alleged that the crash was caused by a defect in the autopilot system of the plane, which was manufactured by defendant Honeywell International, Inc. Honeywell contended that pilot error was the cause of the crash.

At trial, Honeywell’s aircraft accident expert was permitted to testify about an investigative report prepared on behalf of the airplane manufacturer which indicated that the autopilot system had worked properly. The trial court permitted Honeywell’s expert to testify regarding the findings in the manufacturer’s report, accepting Honeywell’s contention that the report was a “learned treatise” upon which its expert could properly rely. The court also allowed the report to be introduced into evidence.

The Supreme Court of Virginia found that permitting Honeywell’s expert to testify about the manufacturer’s report was in error and it reversed the judgment in favor of Honeywell. In doing so, it held that the manufacturer’s investigative report was not a learned treatise within the meaning of Virginia law. At the time it was prepared, the plane manufacturer was a defendant in the pending litigation (although it had been dismissed by the time of trial). The Supreme Court noted that learned treatises are trustworthy because their authors have no bias in any particular case and are aware that their work will be read and evaluated by others in their field, and neither of these considerations applied to the report in question.