CHICAGO (CN) – A vintage aircraft collector cannot lay claim to a P-51 Mustang fighter plane he says was pieced together from parts of another plane stolen from him because he waited too long to bring a lawsuit, the Seventh Circuit ruled Friday.
The P-51 Mustang plane is a single-seat fighter plane used during World War II and the Korean War to escort bombers, most famously in the World War II raids on German industrial locations.
The plane’s superb flying ability was crucial to achieving air superiority over the Nazi Luftwaffe. Herman Goering, commander of the German air force, was quoted as saying, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
While the U.S. built 15,500 Mustangs, only about 100 airworthy planes remain as collector’s items, maintained by private citizens or displayed in museums.
In 1965, one collector, Richard Vartanian, bought a Mustang that had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He stored it at a car dealership then moved it to a hanger in New York.
But 20 years later, when he wanted to move the plane to California, his representative could not find it.
Vartanian suspected a man named Wilbur Martin, who had promised to restore the Mustang for Vartanian, and accused him of using the parts from his planes to cobble together a different Mustang using other parts from a plane that had crashed in Nicaragua.
He complained to the FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, but none of these law enforcement agencies took action against Martin.
In 2014, Vartanian sent a letter to the man who owns the allegedly patchworked Mustang sold by Martin, Charles Greenhill, and demanded that Greenhill turn over the plane to him.
But Greenhill filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment that he is the rightful owner of the Mustang, arguing that Vartanian waited too long to take action on his theft claims against Martin.
A federal judge agreed, and the Seventh Circuit upheld the ruling Friday.
“The district court classified Vartanian’s claim as one for conversion, which is subject to a five-year period of limitations,” and has by now long-since expired, U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a three-judge panel.
Further, the court said the doctrine of laches – which prohibits lawsuits brought after unreasonable delays – would apply even if there were no statute of limitations on Vartanian’s claims.
“Four potential witnesses died in the decades between 1985 and the filing of Vartanian’s counterclaim; they might have addressed topics such as whether Vartanian abandoned the plane between 1965 and 1985. All of the principals (Vartanian, Greenhill, and Martin) are in their 80s and experiencing difficulty remembering events of decades ago. Important business records from the 1960s through the 1990s cannot be located,” Easterbrook wrote.
He added, “It is too late for the judicial system to make a reliable decision about what happened to Vartanian’s plane (or parts of it) and which components of Greenhill’s plane might be traced to the Mustang that the Royal Canadian Air Force sold as surplus in 1960.” (Parentheses in original.)