“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.