If you’ve been keeping up with the legal trials of Cirrus Aircraft, you’ll know that they just had a major verdict go against them by a Minnesota jury regarding a fatal accident in an SR22. The crash occurred in January 2003 and according to the NTSB, the probable cause was “Spatial disorientation experienced by the pilot, due to a lack of visual references, and a failure to maintain altitude. Contributing factors were the pilot’s improper decision to attempt flight into marginal VFR conditions, his inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions, the low lighting condition (night) and the trees.” Trees are always a problem for aircraft.
Witnesses saw the Cirrus at altitudes as low as 100 feet AGL flying very fast and in controlled flight on a predawn flight to get to a hockey game. You can read the details at ASF’s Accident Database – Search NTSB number CHI03FA057, tail number N9523P.
The 248-hour VFR pilot had about 57 hours of instrument instruction and had attended the factory school conducted by the University of North Dakota (UND). One of the training sessions discussed to VFR into IMC procedures. Despite not being rated and obviously marginal weather, the desire to see hockey apparently was overpowering that morning.
Cirrus and UND were cited as negligent by the jury for not adequately training the pilot to fly in IFR conditions. The plaintiff’s attorney claimed that Cirrus and UND did not provide risk management training in-type and that lead directly to the crash. The pilot was held to be 25% responsible. The award was for about $14 million dollars – Cirrus is considering an appeal.
Consistency in the legal system seems to missing, in my view. Does anyone know of another participant activity where the manufacturer is so seldom at fault, yet attorneys seem to have good success at persuading juries that the pilot was largely innocent? A comparable activity, at least for fatality purposes would be motorcycles. A neophyte can go to rider’s school, get a certificate from the state that is a license to learn, and be warned not to take the bike into high speed situations. When the new rider is late to a hockey game, for example, and wipes out going 100 mph, do Harley or Kawasaki get nailed? Probably a rhetorical question – perhaps, more importantly, how can we light the candle of enlightenment under the pilot’s backside to not get into these situations? Alternate solutions are tort reform or only allowing hockey games to take place in good VFR conditions.