Justice Prevails in SR22 Mishap

April 20, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

“This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Depending on which side of a case you reside – it’s a descriptive statement. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a lower court verdict that went against Cirrus Design and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation (UNDAF) after a 2003 fatal accident involving an SR22. The loss of life is tragic and was unnecessary but pilots need to understand the realities of physics.

The testimony in the case points to a common theme of a low time VFR pilot flying a high performance aircraft into IMC. We’ll explore this in much more detail in an upcoming Landmark Accident profile in AOPA Pilot later this summer. What’s of interest here is that the pilot’s family and the other accident victim’s survivors sued, not because the aircraft was defective in any way, but that Cirrus and it’s contractor purportedly failed to provide training on the autopilot to escape IMC. The accident, the plaintiffs contended, was caused by the pilot not being thoroughly trained in the use of the autopilot to recover from an unexpected encounter with IMC.

The trial jury found Cirrus and UNDAF at fault as follows:  Cirrus 37.5%, UNDAF 37.5%, and the pilot 25%. The jury awarded combined damages of $19,400,000 to the families. The appeals court reversed the lower court judgment, finding that under Minnesota law::

  • An airplane manufacturer’s common-law duty to warn of dangers associated with the use of its aircraft does not include a duty to provide pilot training.
  • A negligence claim against an aviation-training provider is barred under the educational-malpractice doctrine where the essence of the claim is that the provider failed to provide an effective education.

AOPA joined in the appeal as a “Friend of the court”, a neutral third party to provide an objective view of the proceedings.   If this decision were allowed to stand it probably would have created a massive disincentive for manufacturers, FBOs, CFIs and flight schools to provide training. I also believe that VFR pilots need to understand the risks of IMC -something that the Air Safety Institute spends considerable effort to educate risks of such behavior. View ASI’s 178 Seconds to Live Pilot Safety Announcement.

The plaintiff’s attorney has promised to take it to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Robert Benda

    Once again, a “non aviation” jury awards a huge settlement based on emotion and not fact. The Appeals court did the proper thing and hopefully the Minnesota Supreme Court will not hear this case. Since when does a “low time” VFR pilot that flies into IMC escape any culpability in this case? Neither Cirrus nor UND forced him to fly into the clouds, and I can probably say with extreme confidence, his instructor never taught him that trick. As a matter of fact, most instructors teach their VFR students that if they ever find themselves in a cloud, execute a 180 degree turn and get out of it. It is also prudent upon the pilot to be cognizant of the weather, and to land the airplane if the weather is looking dicey. AOPA and the ASI have produced so many teaching aids for pilots, that it seams disconcerting that pilots still keep making these stupid mistakes and costing innocent passengers their lives. We can only hope that with continued education, these cases become far and few between.

  • Henry Brecher

    I am gratified to hear that the appellate court made this sensible decision. It seems to me that it is unnecessary to be a lawyer to judge the obvious correctness of this decision. The blame for this accident rests entirely on the pilot and it is the height of absurdity and arrogance for the families, to say nothing of the plaintiffs’ attorney, to bring suit against the manufacturer of the airplane and the flight school. Just another example to show why lawyers in general are held in contempt by the public

  • B. Camp

    I believe more realistic training could be provided. If a film were
    put on the aircraft windows and a visor worn by the student could be flipped down by suprise to obstruct the view. Then the
    student could be evaluated, if a person is likely to panic maybe they
    should not be pilots. I think if an Emergency were not required to
    be declared something less damaging to a career. It might help
    to take the pressure off and get the pilot to contact the controller
    for help. Weather is in constant flux all the weather reports
    available sometimes can not predict the instant formation of fog.
    or the cieling becomming lower. or a sudden rain shower. I believe
    not enough training is given in marginal weather, so that often
    when a pilot first encounters it on his own with out an instructor
    it is a sink or swim sittuation.

  • Ron Ekstrom

    Greed and grief are tremendous motivators to do things that reasonable people would avoid!

  • Zorn

    ” I think if an Emergency were not required to
    be declared something less damaging to a career. It might help
    to take the pressure off and get the pilot to contact the controller
    for help.”

    When a VFR pilot gets caught in IMC usually time only allows a short conversation with God.

  • RustedGranny

    As already said, Pilot in Command is totally responsible. What is overlooked here, is that pilots need to make it VERY CLEAR to any possible survivors (family members) that their choice to fly, and possible meet their end while flying. Is NOT a cause for filing lawsuits. I’ve added this wording to my will, and state it to my family on a regular basis. I tell them that of course, I am careful. But should I do something stupid, like flying into IMC, then it’s MY fault. Not the maker of the aircraft, any part therein, or any person providing training, maintenance, etc.

  • http://arcticflyers.biz Richard Ruess

    I think the FAA minimums of 3 hours instrument time falls short of what should be required for the Private rating. Also requiring only 3 miles visibility day and 5 miles visibility night for student pilots to fly solo is asking for trouble.

  • Don

    Sanity is prevailing, at least for now. These giant awards based on, as an above poster has said, emotion and greed have always sickened me. I don’t know how the plaintiff’s attorneys in these cases sleep at night, they give the legal profession a bad name (the case years back of the Piper Cub being ‘judged’ ‘dangerous and defective due to its tailwheel configuration’ comes to mind).

    Doubtless, the $19 million figure was pulled out of some nether region, perhaps the jury see themselves someday in the position of winning the legal lotto and were hoping for a karmic reward of sorts.

    OK Arthur Alan Wolk et al, bring on your inevitable justification for such thievery.

  • Douglas Hershkowitz

    If lawyers were held responsible for filing frivilous lawsuits, then like this would disappear and life would be simpler. I am a newly minted private pilot and I find it hard to believe that anyone who has recently undergone pilot training has not had the point of risk management driven into their head as one of the most important things in flying. This pilot took a risk he should have not taken and paid the most dearest price for it. However, it is not the fault of the instructors or the plane maufacturer. It was he who made the poor decision. This is just yet another example of people not taking responsibilty for their own actions. The plaintiff’s lawyer should not be allowed to appeal. Furthermore, he should be made to pay the expenses incurred by Cirrus, the pilot’s instructors, and the University. In addition, he should be brought in front of the Bar for sanctions.

  • James Goudy

    Hershkowitz said it best! We should forward his response to every law maker in the nation. Unfortunately, most of them are lawyers.

  • grumpy

    Heading bug at 12 o’clock, autopilot on, maintain climb, evaluate situation, call for help. Maybe not 100% legal but it’ll keep you alive so no-one has to file lawsuits.
    Remember JFK Jr.

  • Matt

    The pilot/passenger’s families may have had a case if Cirrus/UNDAF made no attempt to warn against VFR flight into IMC or MVFR with no clear way out. It’s not the responsibility of instructors or flight schools to teach pilot applicants, in exhaustive detail, how to survive the consequences of unwise or illegal decisions. It’s the responsibility of instructors and flight schools to train those applicants to never make an unwise or illegal decision to fly VFR into IMC in the first place. As far as accidental VFR into IMC is concerned — the FAA has already determined the level of training necessary in the form of Practical Test Standards. As long as training given meets those standards, instructors and schools should be free from the risk of being sued for giving inadequate training. As I recall with this particular accident, the pilot knew the weather was bad and decided to depart anyway. Scud-running ensued, and a typical VFR into IMC loss of control/flight into terrain accident followed shortly thereafter. The NTSB records are replete with similar accidents. The families of these other pilots, who came to a similar end, have no more of a case against the instructor(s) of the deceased than do these folk against Cirrus/UNDAF.

  • Gary

    If you travel far enough, you will encounter weather beyond you and/or your plane’s capabilities. Through my personal experience as a VFR pilot, I feel its a lie that weather sneaks up on you. There’s seem to always be some indication that things are changing, that is if your paying attention. I have turned tail and run from clouds that seem to pop up out of nowhere, and been forced to find an airport to wait out a fast moving storm. In my humble opinion, night flying is when you can get caught off guard (smooth air, low radio chatter, beautiful lighted landscape or dark landscape that makes you feel like your just floating in space). When I decided to launch at night FSS did give me a hint the weather could change.

  • http://www.aviationlawmonitor.com Mike Danko

    Bruce, how can you say that AOPA joined the fray as a “a neutral third party to provide an objective view of the proceedings”? Come on. AOPA is not in any way a “neutral” third party. Nor does it provide “an objective view.” And it’s not supposed to. Instead, AOPA is a lobbying organization that is supposed to advocate for what it believes to be in the interests of pilots and aircraft owners. And that’s exactly what it did. Let’s get real.

    The point is, plaintiffs argued their interests. Defendants argued theirs. And AOPA did too. No one involved in the appeal — including AOPA — was “neutral” or “objective.” Geez.

  • Mike Roebuck

    This is a tragic accident because of a bad decision, I feel sorry for the families. This is another example of a low time pilot with too much airplane. As far as more training, he had 60 hours of instrument training. He should of been able to get himself our of this situation by flying the airplane and calling ATC for help. He is more so to blame, because of his training, that he shouldn’t hav gotten himself in this position. Weather does not sneek up on you, you either take off in it or fly into it. I cought myself in this position a few times until I finally got enough sense to get an instrument rating. I am glad to see law and common sense ruled in this case.
    I bet that 1% in the polls that thought the appellate court made the wrong decision were all lawyers.

  • Mike Finkle

    My comments are simple, but as both a 12,000+ hour ATP who is also a Court Mediator, I believe they address the important points here… (1) as pilots we all make errors, but must accept responsibility for (and, if we’re still alive thereafter, learn from) those errors, (2) the PIC is ALWAYS the ONLY one responsible for continued VFR flight into IMC (or IMC-like conditions), (3) the Appeals Court ruling (finally) ensured that the responsibility was not legally assigned where it did not belong and the “right thing” was done, and (4) an objective, analytical, and factually correct opinion is always “neutral” regardless of its appearing to be favorable to any party.

  • Joaquin Aguirre

    In other countries in the world the “looser” of lawsuits on final ruling (after all possible appeals) pays ALL the legal and other expenses, including those of the “winners” (as per Hershkowitz comment above). If applied in the USA, I believe this would reduce tremendously the legal “carnival” were I believe some lawyers pass the line of charging their hourly rate fee, to become “business partner” with their clients for a sizeable take in the potential “prize money”.

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