DJ & NA Shanks Ltd v Heli Support New Zealand Ltd  NZHC 1615
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.
It seems that this applies to litigation as well. Pauline Davies and Sam Learmonth recently acted for the plaintiff in a five-day High Court trial, seeking recovery of a payment made by insurers to a helicopter owner after the helicopter was damaged in a crash. The defendant was a maintenance engineer and it was alleged that the crash was caused by negligent workmanship. After the trial, Pauline and Sam were surprised to find that the issue in dispute had already been discussed in some detail in John Grisham’s novel, Gray Mountain.
The plaintiff’s claim was that the defendant had failed to identify a loose nut, called a B-nut, which was a component of the helicopter’s fuel system, and that this had resulted in the fuel supply to the engine being cut off. The helicopter flew for about 40 minutes after being released to service, but its engine stopped suddenly when the pilots were preparing to land. The pilots fortunately survived the resulting crash without injury, but the helicopter was badly damaged. At a post-crash inspection, the parties all agreed that the B-nut was loose. The question, then, was how and when it became loose.
The defendant denied that it had loosened the B-nut as part of its work and said that it had carried out careful checks that would have picked up any issues. The defendant said that the crash was not caused by the B-nut, but rather by snow interrupting the air supply to the engine.
The plaintiff said that although it could not prove how the B-nut came to be loose, it did not have to do so, and only needed to give a credible explanation for the crash which demonstrated that the loose B-nut must have been the cause. It did so through compelling expert evidence combined with factual evidence that informed the expert’s opinion, and by disproving the “snow” theory.
In Gray Mountain, a loose B-nut was identified as a possible cause of a plane crashing in mysterious circumstances. The main character recognises that if a B-nut is loosened, the engine will “start up fine and operate smoothly until the vibration causes the B nut to slowly unscrew itself … happens very fast with no warning, no alarm, and it’s impossible to restart it”. That quotation could have come straight from the plaintiff’s closing submissions!
It is not known if the trial judge is familiar with Mr Grisham’s work, but she accepted the plaintiff’s causation theory and gave judgment for the plaintiff for the agreed quantum plus interest and costs.