Every Star Wars fan knows the feeling from that epic moment when Luke fires his proton torpedoes and they go right into the exhaust port causing a chain reaction and blowing up the Death Star. When I attended the re-release many years ago the entire theatre cheered, however at some point you begin to wonder, “Who would design a massive battle weapon that could be blown up by any farm boy who could bullseye womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon in a T-16?” And, if you had family on that Death Star is there someone you could hold accountable for its poor design assuming the Empire were governed by U.S. law?
Who can you sue?
Rebels: Not for the exhaust port issue. There was a weakness, they exploited it and while they did blow up the Death Star they didn’t design it. So, while there are other grounds you may be able to sue them over it won’t be over the poor design of the Death Star. (Besides, even if you do get a judgment, how are you going to collect? You’d have to join up, convince them you had a death sentence on your head, and then hope they coughed up some credits so you could pay it off.)
Manufacturer: Probably not. Death Stars aren’t built for consumer use, at least not yet….
Contractor: Once again, probably not. It wasn’t shoddy work that caused it to explode. It was built as designed, which we know because the rebels are able to determine how to blow it up based on the stolen blueprints.
The Empire: Nope. Sovereign immunity says that legally the state can do no wrong, so you can’t sue it either criminally or civilly, unless it allows itself to be sued. Also, Darth Vader has killed people for less reason than that, so even if you could sue the Empire it would exponentially increase your chance of being choked to death by the force. But if a military contractor drew up the plans, you might possibly be able to hold them accountable….
Military Contractors scramble for cover
In Boyle v. United technologies, Inc., the Supreme Court held that “Liability for design defects in military equipment cannot be imposed pursuant to state law, when (1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not the United States.
So, if some planet had a law saying you could sue the empire for design defects in military equipment you might have a shot. We can be sure, in this situation, that the Empire approved reasonably precise specifications for the Death Star. They knew what the Death Star was, they knew what it was supposed to be able to do, and they were the ones who constructed the “technological terror.” Reasonably precise specifications doesn’t require a contractor to justify the location of every piston in an engine, and is unlikely to require a contractor to justify the location of every thermal exhaust port.
And the equipment conformed to the specifications. They wanted a battle station that could blow up a planet, and they got a battle station that could blow up a planet. Further, everything seems to work as intended. The trash compactor compacts. The tractor beam pulls ships in. The thing even follows the Millenium Falcon through hyperspace. It just has that one flaw, which no one seems to know about until the Rebels show up to exploit it.
It’s the third piece, where the supplier warns the government about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not the government where things really fall apart. If you design a tank that has a tendency to overheat, thus causing the engine to kill in the middle of maneuvers, that’s the kind of thing people should know about; if you design a battleship with a hull that collapses on impact with anything, that’s the kind of thing people should know about; and if your technological terror can be defeated by shooting two proton torpedoes, which are readily available throughout the galaxy, into a thermal exhaust port creating a chain reaction that will cause your entire battle station to blow up, that’s the kind of thing you should definitely know about.
The Rebellion is prominent enough that one would assume that sooner or later the Death Star will get attacked. And the Rebels, after only a little time with the blueprints are able to determine the way to blow up the Death Star is to hit a little two meter exhaust port. In the movies, Red Leader takes a shot and while it’s not a direct hit the entire Death Star keels to and fro like a drunken sailor. And, if you knew that one exhaust port would blow up the entire battle station, wouldn’t you put something in front of it like a huge metal wall, or an auto turret? Based on the fact that the Empire didn’t put anything in front of it to keep out proton torpedoes, the reasonable assumption is it was a design defect an architect or engineer knew about but didn’t bother to share. And, by not pointing out that a direct hit would cause a chain reaction blowing up the entire space station, they would be potentially liable for the deaths of all the people on the death star.
Engineers and Architects on Defense
But would the engineers or architects have any defenses to being sued?
There are some things the courts won’t review out of deference to the other branches of the government, military decisions are one of them. You don’t want your military leaders in the middle of the war worried about whether or not they’re going to get sued because someone slipped and broke their leg. If it’s a nonjusticable political question they can’t be held responsible, but if their actions don’t require an evaluation of a military decision then the case could go forward because it’s reviewable. See McMahon v. Presidential Airways, Inc., 502 F.3d 1331, 1359-60 (11th Cir. 2007).
If the military is telling the contractor what to do then reviewing the contractors actions will require a review of the military order to the contractor, but if the military only provides general guidelines, allowing the contractor to use its own discretion in how something is done, then military decisions are not being questioned and the contractors actions are reviewable. See Harris v. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., 724 F.3d 458, 466 (3rd Cir. 2013).
In the case of the Death Star it’s likely that a contractor would have been given significant discretion over how the Death Star systems were designed, and the Empire did not oversee the placement of every exhaust port, so the decision regarding the exhaust ports would be reviewable.
Things get messier then Jawa’s fighting over who saw a droid first.
This is not an area of settled law, and there are several tests available. We’ll go with the “combatant-activities, command-authority test” which has the most following at this point. It consists of two prongs: “(1) Whether the contractor is integrated into the military’s combatant activities—this ensures that preemption occurs only when battlefield decisions are at issue – and (2) whether the contractor’s actions were the result of the military’s retention of command authority—this properly differentiates between the need to insulate the military’s battlefield decisions from state regulation and the permissible regulation of harm resulting solely from contractors’ actions.” Harris v. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., 724 F.3d 458 (3rd Cir. 2013)
Combatant activities “include not only physical violence, but activities both necessary to and in direction connection with actual hostilities.” Johnson v. United States, 170 F.2d 767, 770 (9th Cir. 1948). ([S]upplying ammunition to fighting vessels in a combat area during war is undoubtedly a ‘combatant activity.’) The Court in Harris found that “Maintaining the electrical systems for a barracks in an active war zone is analogous to supplying ammunition to fighting vessels in a combat area and is certainly “necessary to and in direct connection” to the hostilities engaged in by the troops living in those barracks. Harris v. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., 724 F.3d 458 (3rd Cir. 2013). In contrast, simply drawing up plans for a mobile battle station has little to do with actual hostilities, so likely does not fall under preemption.
Even if it did fall under preemption, the second prong, which asks whether the contractors actions were the result of the military’s retention of command authority, would still be unsatisfied. In Saleh v. Titan Corp. the court found “Because performance-based statements of work describe the work in terms of the required results rather than either ‘how’ the work is to be accomplished or the number of hours to be provided, 48 C.F.R. § 37.602(b)(1), by definition, the military could not retain command authority nor operational control over contractors working on that basis and thus tort suits against such contractors would not be preempted under our holding.” 580 F.3d 1, pp 9-10 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (internal quotations omitted.) In other words, if the Empire told a contractor they wanted a Death Star and, instead of laying out the process for how it should be built let the contractor decide the best way to build it to meet the Empires’ specifications, there would be no preemption.
A case could be brought against a contractor who drew up the plans for Death Star because of the poor placement of the one exhaust port that caused the entire station to blow up, the court would just need to get to the contractor before Lord Vader does.