Political Question Doctrine Bars Relief in Products Liability Action

As lawyers practicing in the neat little world of products liability, we sometimes become complacent with our narrow world, which is more often than not populated by familiar concepts like strict liability, state of the art, and warranty disclaimers.  We’re comfortable with these concepts.  We use them every day, and we can recite by name and sometimes even citation the cases that stand for those fabled and familiar principles. But every once in a while, a case comes along that requires us to leave our comfort zone and do what our law school professors challenged us to do: think outside the realm of the class in which we were sitting at that moment, and reach into concepts we (at least arguably) learned from other classes.

This was the situation facing the defense lawyers in the case Armedi v. BAE Sys., Inc., 1:10-CV-01557-JOF, 2011 WL 1707251 (N.D. Ga. Apr. 22, 2011).  The case involved the unfortunate death of Rebar Amedi, a civilian contractor working as a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq.  Mr. Amedi was killed when the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (“MRAP”) vehicle called a Caiman in which he was riding was struck by an improvised explosive device, commonly known as an IED.  According to the facts agreed to by the parties:

There were eight occupants in the passenger compartment of the Caiman which was designed to hold only six people. None of the occupants wore a seat belt and the doors to the compartment were not combat locked. The equipment stored in the MRAP was secured only by bungee cords and parachute cord, instead of ratcheting straps. Even though the passenger compartment was intact, the rear doors came off and it appears that Mr. Amedi was thrown from the vehicle and he sustained fatal injuries.

Mr. Armedi’s widow brought suit against BAE Systems, Inc., BAE Systems Land & Armaments L.P.; and BAE Systems Tactical Vehicle Systems LP, on April 16, 2010, in the Superior Court of Fulton County, alleging product defect, negligence, and breach of warranty claims arising out of the death of Mr. Amedi.  The case was removed by the defendants, and they immediately filed a motion to dismiss not based on defenses they learned in products class, but based on the political question doctrine and the combatant activities exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act.

We will spare your digging through your home library for that dusty Con Law book, and remind you about the factors relevant to determining if a dispute raises a “non-justiciable political question.”  If only one of the factors is present, the court dismisses the case.  Those factors are:

1. a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department;
2. a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it;
3. the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion;
4. the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government;
5. an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or
6. the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.
Likening the case to a prior 11th Cicuit Court of Appeals case on the same issue, the Court held that because the events which led up to Mr. Armedi’s death resulted directly from miltary decisions, including the use of MRAP vehicles, the timing of the convoy, and, as a prior-decided case articulated, “at the broadest level . . . the military’s decision to utilize civilian contractors in conducting the war in Iraq,” the case involved a non-justiciable political question, ”because to evaluate Plaintiff’s complaint would require the court to re-examine military decisions.”  After reaching this conclusion and dismissing the case on those grounds, it did not reach the question regarding the Federal Tort Claims Act.
To us, the most interesting part of the case was the use of a defense found outside the realm of products liability.  The product itself never became the issue in the case, despite the allegations levied against them by the plaintiff on products theories.  We are used to making procedural arguments that operate the same way, but we wonder if there are other long-forgotten classes we are under-utilizing in our products cases.   Who knows?  Maybe that third-year “law in movies” class could provide some novel defenses for cases in the future.

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