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Friday, April 19, 2024 | Back issues
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No Immunity for Weapons Maker in Fatal Explosion

(CN) - Weapons maker General Dynamics may be liable after an accidental explosion in an Army training exercise killed one soldier and injured three others, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

After a federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit against General Dynamics, the company claimed it was entitled to immunity as a government defense contractor.

But the federal appeals court in San Francisco denied the appeal, finding that the government contractor defense does not confer immunity, and that the weapons maker can't appeal the denial of summary judgment based on disputed facts.

Martin Marietta Aluminum Sales, a predecessor of the Virginia-based General Dynamics, manufactured the mortar cartridge, which exploded prematurely at the Hawaii training camp in 2006.

The explosion killed Staff Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez and injured Samuel Oyola-Perez, Julius Riggins and Wilfredo Dayandante.

Experts testified in federal court that the 81mm mortar cartridge may have gone off during the live-fire exercise because of material defects or because the mortar was double-loaded.

In dismissing General Dynamic's appeal, the three-judge appellate panel ruled that "the government contractor defense is not a grant of immunity and that the district court denied summary judgment on the basis of a disputed issue of material fact."

The government contractor defense applies only to a strict set of circumstances, specifically when the government has set precise specifications for the contractor and it's clear that the equipment meets those specifications, according to the ruling.

"Here, there is no proof to establish as a matter of law that the equipment conformed to the government's precise specifications," Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote. "In fact, the plaintiffs' expert determined that the premature explosion was caused by a defect in the cartridge body, voiding or cracking in the high explosive filling, or a foreign body in the high explosive filling. This evidence could allow a finding of noncompliance with the government's precise specifications."

Callahan added that even if the panel treated the government contractor defense as a claim of qualified immunity, it lacks jurisdiction to "review an interlocutory appeal of a denial of qualified immunity."

"Here, the district court's denial of summary judgment rested on its finding that there is a disputed issue of material fact as to whether the cause of the explosion was double loading, a defect in the cartridge at the manufacturing stage, or some other cause," she wrote.

"This ruling raises factual issues, rather than legal questions, and thus would not be reviewable on interlocutory appeal."

The panel dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. General Dynamics' request that the court treat the appeal as a petition for an extraordinary writ of mandamus also failed, as the company could not "make the type of extraordinary showing required" for the court to do so.

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