Challenging findings of fact on appeal

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Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott[1] is a recent decision of the High Court which considered an instance where an appellate court overturned a finding of fact by a primary judge regarding negligence.

The Story

On 30 May 2004, a Robinson R22 helicopter, manufactured by Robinson’s Helicopter Company (“the appellant”) crashed leaving the pilot dead and Mr McDermott (“first respondent”) with serious injuries. Mr McDermott, his wife and employer brought an action in negligence and under the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) against Robinson. There was no contention between the parties that the cause of the crash was a failure of the helicopter’s forward flex plate. That is, one of the bolts securing the flex plate had been incorrectly assembled which meant that the bolt was not tightened to the necessary degree (the defect). During a number of later routine inspections performed by pilots and engineers, the defect was not detected.

The Issue

The question before the Court was whether the helicopter’s inspection Manual provided sufficient instructions to facilitate detection of the defect?

Decision at first instance

The primary judge held that the Manual was sufficient to convey to a person carrying out an inspection the procedure for the detection of the defect. Thus the judge found in favour of Robinson.

Court of Appeal decision

On appeal, the majority held inter alia that the judge had erred in finding that the Manual was sufficient. Rather the Court’s view was that the Manual did not provide adequate instructions. In doing this, it reached a different conclusion to the primary judge as to the appearance of the Bolt at the time of the inspections. Therefore the Court held that Robinson was either liable in negligence or under the Trade Practices Act.

 High Court decision

The High Court unanimously held that the Court of Appeal should not have overturned the primary’s judge’s findings which lead them to a different conclusion. In particular, the Court held that it is only appropriate to overturn findings of fact where they are ‘incontrovertible facts or uncontested testimony’ or are ‘glaringly improbable or contrary to compelling evidence’. Findings as to the appearance of the bolt at the time of the inspections were not of this kind and therefore the Court of Appeal was wrong to overturn the primary judge’s findings. The primary judge was in a position to make findings of fact based on the evidence presented at trial. Such evidence was not presented to the Court of Appeal and therefore it was not in a position to make a different finding of fact than that of the trial judge. Accordingly it was right for the primary judge to find that the procedure provided for in the manual did not fall short of the duty that Robinson owed to the respondent. Therefore the High Court found in favour of Robinson. Further, the Court went on to consider if there had been a breach of duty, it could not be satisfied that a casual link between a breach of duty and the crash had been proven.

The appeal was allowed.

Lessons

The case is an important reminder of the role that different courts have when making determinations of fact. The trial judge is in a unique position to be able to consider the evidence as is presented at trial, an appellate court is not in the same position. Therefore it is generally not appropriate for an appellate court to make a different finding of fact.

The other issue for the respondents was that they were unable to establish on the balance of probabilities that there was a casual link between the alleged breach of duty and the crash. That is, even if the Manual was insufficient, amounting to a breach of duty, the action still would have been unsuccessful as the respondent had not established that the inadequacy of the Manual caused the crash.

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[1] [2016] HCA 22.