Texas Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Political Issues Doctrine for Military Contractors – Aviation

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In Preston Support Services vs M1, a navy helicopter crashed during a training exercise, killing three people. Investigators found the crash likely occurred due to holes in a fuel transfer tube, caused by rubbing a nearby improvised plastic tie that held a wiring harness. The families of the deceased and one of the survivors sued the private contractor the Navy had hired to maintain the aircraft.

The entrepreneur sought dismissal for lack of jurisdiction in the matter due to the ‘political question doctrine’, under which courts cannot consider ‘controversies that revolve around political choices and determinations of value constitutionally committed for resolution in the halls of Congress or the confines of the executive branch. The contractor argued that the doctrine deprived the court of jurisdiction because the case was “inextricable from judicial review of military decisions.” The court disagreed, ultimately concluding that the action was simply an allegation of ordinary negligence.

The court noted that the first issue when considering the political question doctrine is the extent to which the case requires review of military decisions. In an earlier case, for example, the court held that the doctrine applied to the design of a kennel (from which a dog escaped and caused injury), as it was the military itself. who had designed the kennel. On the other hand, the
Preston the plaintiffs claimed the contractor was negligent precisely because he deviated from Navy maintenance procedures.

The second question is whether a judicial review of the case would interfere with military strategy or judgment. The contractor claimed that it was possible that the Navy itself was responsible for the accident due to its own faulty maintenance. But the court held that, even if that were the case, the inquiry would still be a “mechanical, not military, expertise” – and so the political question doctrine was not involved.

Although not invoked by the Preston Court, the political question doctrine may be useful as a defense when a claim centers on discretionary military or governmental policy decisions that leave little discretion to the private defendant, similar to the government contractor defense.

Preston vs. M1 Support Servs., LP2022 Texas LEXIS 63 (Tex. 2022).

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