Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Helman v. Alcoa Global Fasteners (9th Cir. - March 11, 2011)

Four quick things about this case:

(1)  It's a really well-written opinion.  I'm usually dubious about opinions that say "This is an easy case.  The plain text of the statute is clear."  Usually appeals are more difficult than that.  Especially when, as here, there is another circuit that has expressed a holding on the issue, in a split opinion.  Even more so when, as here, the district court certified the question for appeal as being a close one.

Notwithstanding this prejudice, I'm persuaded by Judge Betty Fletcher's opinion.  Not only is it well-written, but it entirely persuades me.  The statutory language does indeed give you the correct answer.  (Though I concede that the "backup" arguments about legislative history, amendments, etc. definitely helped me to reach this conclusion -- one which I would not have so readily reached had the mere language been the sole genesis of the opinion.)  Well done.

(2)  It's an example of the randomness of life (and litigation).  A Navy helicopter crashes in the Pacific, killing three people.  Everyone agrees that if it crashes three miles or less offshore, the decedents get to sue (under state law).   Everyone agrees that if it crashes twelve miles or more offshore, the decedents can try to sue (under admiralty law), but that's incredibly harder.  Everyone disagrees about what law applies when the crash is between three and twelve miles offshore after Reagan extended our territorial boundary from three to twelve miles in 1988.  So whether plaintiffs win or lose depends upon the happenstance of just how far out to sea they were when they smashed into the water.  Here, 9.5 miles.  A fact also happenstance because this is the distance not to the California coastline, but to Catalina Island.  This is the stuff that matters.

(3)  The next time someone says you can't interpret a statute to make words in the statute meaningless, this holding is a pretty good rejoinder.  Because that's exactly what the Ninth Circuit does.  The statute says that state law is preempted when a crash occurs "on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States."  Plaintiffs say that it's not the "high seas" because it's within the expanded U.S. territorial limits.  The Ninth Circuit says, nope, the words "on the high seas" are meaningless.  As long as it's beyond three nautical miles, the statute applies.  Sometimes words are indeed redundant.

(4)  Why write dissents, you might ask?  Because sometimes other courts follow them.  Particularly when you are subsequently elevated to the Supreme Court.  Which may make your reasoning sound even more persuasive.  The Ninth Circuit rejects the Second Circuit's holding in the TWA Flight 800 case.  Electing to follow instead then-Judge Sotomayor's dissent.

Lessons of the day.