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INSIGHTS: High Court win: finding reminds courts of appeal of their limits

June 14, 2016

Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott is a case of two major errors: the first by a helicopter repairman who improperly serviced a component causing a crash, and the second by the Court of Appeal, which improperly applied the wrong standard of review to the factual findings of the trial judge.

Unusually for the High Court, it granted special leave in a fact dependent case with none of the features such as a Constitutional question or conflict of decisions among the states, which typically attract its attention. Instead the Court used this case to remind courts of appeal of their limits in reviewing the factual findings of the trial court.

The basic facts of the case were not disputed. Sometime after manufacture, a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer (LAME) erred while re-assembling a critical component of a Robinson R22 helicopter by leaving a bolt loose rather than torqued to a specified value. The loose bolt ultimately caused the component’s failure and thus the aircraft crash, which killed the pilot and severely injured the passenger.

The injured passenger (and related parties) sued Robinson on the grounds that its maintenance manual for the R22 was defective in that it failed to sufficiently specify procedures by which subsequent LAMEs could detect and thus rectify the error of their predecessor. The trial court (Peter Lyons J of the Queensland Supreme Court) found, after a five week trial, that the manual was not defective and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim.

The plaintiffs appealed and a majority of the Court of Appeal (McMurdo P and Alan Wilson J) allowed the appeal basically on the grounds that they disagreed with the trial judge’s findings of fact and his interpretation of the evidence. The minority (Holmes JA as she was then) would have dismissed the appeal as she determined that the trial judge had sufficient evidentiary basis for his decision.

In allowing Robinson’s appeal the High Court, relying principally on its earlier case of Fox v Percy[1], unanimously ruled:

The fact that the judge and the majority of the Court of Appeal came to different conclusions is in itself unremarkable. A court of appeal conducting an appeal by way of rehearing is bound to conduct a “real review” of the evidence given at first instance and of the judge’s reasons for judgment to determine whether the judge has erred in fact or law.  If the court of appeal concludes that the judge has erred in fact, it is required to make its own findings of fact and to formulate its own reasoning based on those findings. But a court of appeal should not interfere with a judge’s findings of fact unless they are demonstrated to be wrong by “incontrovertible facts or uncontested testimony”, or they are “glaringly improbable” or “contrary to compelling inferences”. In this case, they were not. The judge’s findings of fact accorded to the weight of lay and expert evidence and to the range of permissible inferences. The majority of the Court of Appeal should not have overturned them. [footnotes omitted]

In short, the High Court found that the Court of Appeal had not applied the correct standard of review, and had it done so (as the minority did) it would have dismissed the appeal. The High Court ordered that Robinson’s appeal was to be allowed with costs and it set aside the orders of the Court of Appeal, and in their place order that the plaintiffs’ appeal be dismissed with costs.

Robinson was represented by S.L. Doyle QC and M.T. Hickey instructed by Peter Axelrod of Meridian Lawyers.

Case: Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott, [2016] HCA 22, 8 June 2016

Decision by: French CJ, Bell, Keane, Nettle and Gordon JJ.


[1] 214 CLR 118 at 126 [25] per Gleeson CJ, Gummow and Kirby JJ; [2003] HCA 22
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