Get me to the hockey game on time

June 11, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Bob Davidson

    Did you look at the Strict Liability imposed on the Manufacturer? When you write an article like this you must cover all bases since the average reader is not going to be aware of the different types of liability imposed by the courts. There are good reasons in law for these measures.

  • Alex Kovnat

    I agree, aircraft manufacturers are victims of the “deep pocket” syndrome in civil law. In other words, if someone’s beloved 10 year old son or daughter is unfortunately killed during a Young Eagle flight, the parents could sue the estate of the pilot but, even if he or she is 100% at fault, its more profitable to sue the manufacturer of the airplane.

    AOPA has done a great job co-ordinating the fight against airport closings. It is also important for organizations like AOPA to argue that waging this tragic, unnecessary civil law aggression against aircraft manufacturers could be ruinous to general aviation.

  • Hank Rudge

    This is a major reason why Cirrus was an early adopted of EVS. They realized the additional safety margins it brings in IMC/IFR conditions.

  • Grant McHerron

    Sadly, you can’t protect against stupidity and it would appear that the legal system in the USA isn’t able to say “Sorry, the guy was a bloody idiot” (which is what the rest of us are saying about a pilot with no IFR ticket who tries to fly under the clag to get to a clear bit despite getting told by a briefer that it was not a good time to fly!) Abdication of responsibility is all too common these days :(

  • Craig Gomulka

    “Abdication of responsibility is all too common these days”

    Totally agree, I just wrote about this on my blog. Where has common sense gone?

  • Mike Hand

    I’m not going to belabor this with “It’s all about the money.”

    Why doesn’t compliance with the regs buy any immunity? If Cirrus built the airplane in compliance with the regs., shouldn’t that grant immunity? After all, the regulations are there to “keep us safe.”

    If complance with the regulations does not provide legal immunity, then why bother complying with them. If there is no incentive to complying with the regulations, why bother?

    Why bother with annual inspections? Why bother complying with ADs? Why bother being current, or legal in IMC?

    Isn’t one of the questions on the private pilot written test something to do with cloud clearance, and IMC/VMC conditions? I guess this poor idiot didn’t pass that question.

  • Mike Danko

    Thre regs are minimum standards only. Just because you complied with the regs, it doesn’t mean you weren’t careless in some respect. A certified aircraft can still be defective.

    The allegation in this case, however, wasn’t that the aircraft was defective. It was that the transition training the pilot received was improper.
    Like all private pilots, this one apparently had some training on how to turn around if you inadvertantly fly into IMC. But perhaps the training he received in his C-172 wasn’t enough to safe his bacon in the Cirrus. Unfortunately, it looks like his Cirrus transition instructor may have skipped that part of the program.

  • Thomas Snow

    Same old “deep pockets” story again. And with the current anti-corporate socialist agenda being shoved down our throats, GA will soon become a thing of the past.

  • Richard Dove

    “Cirrus and UND were cited as negligent by the jury for not adequately training the pilot to fly in IFR conditions.” Seems to me like this pilot was clearly trying to avoid flying in IFR conditions. I really doubt in any of his training for IFR conditions he was trained that it was ok to fly low level. If his jury were really of his peers, I think there would have been a pilot or two that knew what he did was totally against even basic training.

  • Ric Lee

    “Cirrus and UND were cited as negligent by the jury for not adequately training the pilot to fly in IFR conditions.” Did they offer the pilot instrument training? Did he
    pass the FAA checkride? If not, I can’t see where the jury could decide that Cirrus
    and UND were at fault.

    The legal system states you will be tried by a jury of your peers. In this case it should have been a jury of pilots. I would have told the judge the fellow was solely
    at fault.

  • Dennis O’Meara

    Does anyone know if this is Cirrus’s first loss in court?

    They will almost certainly appeal and these awards are typically reduced by the appeals courts which do not include juries. The usual scenario is the parties settle in a sealed deal. The plaintiff lawyers know the pot will keep shrinking as time goes on. The defendants settle to reduce the ongoing legal costs and also to avoid having a precedent in the public domain.

    As a company Cirrus needs to fight every case tooth and nail and give no quarter. The Merck defense as contrasted to the week kneed Parker Hannifin capitulation.

    In the long term I think there two things AOPA needs to do.

    The first is commision a really comprehensive survey to see what liabilty costs are for GA. See what manufacturers, parts suppliers, f FTO’s and MX organizations are paying. All these costs show on the pilots per hour price.

    The second is to explore alternate routes of minimizing these costs. One thing I would like is to be able to buy is an insurance policy that includes personal life insurance for all aboard that is only active if no suits are filled against the aircraft owner.


  • Larry Hunt

    To the first commentator, re “strict liability.”

    There may be “good reasons” in the law for this concept. However, the result in this case is clearly unjust to knowledgable citizens (i.e., other pilots). The result has negative consequences for society as a whole. It is a lawyers’ trick designed to enrich lawyers.

  • Duane Schleifer

    This is ridiculous! Period!

    A flight instructor once told me the statistics show that pilots start killing themselves around the 300 hour mark. This guy was above average, I guess. I’m not 100% on the statistics since it’s second hand information but I can tell you after reading this blog and the NTSB report, this guy got cocky.

    Cirrus should in no way whatsoever be held responsible for this guys decision to fly in such marginal conditions. I believe they should appeal and the appeals court should place 100% blame on the pilot and reduce the award to $0. Heck, for that matter, Cirrus should be awarded for their expenses during this circus event.

  • Bob McKillip


    The comparison to motorcycles is directly what a good friend, and fellow pilot, cites as the unfair assessment by the insurance industry on risks assigned to travel. To explain, it seems a few years back I was using a rental C-172 “too much” (2x in one week) on business travel to attend two meetings and make a day of it instead of two overnight journeys here on the east coast. My boss looked into the travel insurance for the company, and found that personal airplane use is not covered. He said that if I could find “equivalent coverage” and make a business case of using GA as a cost savings mechanism, the company would pick up the insurance tab. Sounds good so far.

    The problem was that the travel insurance was for $1M, and the umbrella policy (which also doesn’t cover small airplane use) was $2M, so I was being tasked with finding $3M of liability coverage, for a 300hr pilot with no IFR rating. Several contacts told me Lloyd’s of London *might* right me a policy, but I wouldn’t want to know what the annual premium would be. As a result, no more business flying here at my company.

    The silly part to this is your motorcycle rider can head off down the I-95 corridor, in the rain, with minimal training, and take out himself and other motorists that he is typically within 10-20 feet at most times, and he’s covered. But a private pilot that has undergone significantly more training and testing, is deemed too much of a risk.

    Pehaps the AOPA “every pilot gets a pilot” program should target lawyers and insurance agents so they understand what they are effectively regulating …

  • Kevin

    This accident was most likely not Cirrus’s fault. However much could have been done by Cirrus to prevent it. I find it astonishing that with all the talent in this company, and others, they still fail to take the necessary precautions from a purely risk management/ asset protection aspect, not to mention any moral considerations, Etc. For one, these folks need to understand the history of all aspects of their industry and business, or they are condemmed to repeat it. Yes, it appears this particular accident was a classic case of several factors. Probably more money than brains mixed with a dose of omnipotent syndrome, get there itis, lack of experience and proper training. And of course common sense. Sure our justice system ,many times, leaves something to be desired. But it could have been skillfully maneuvered around and through by competent legal representation working in conjunction with Cirrus and other industry leaders. A simple plan should have already been in place to make the defense attorneys job a “no brainer”. Also as a flight instructor, A&P, AGI, Etc. I must further state, as most know, It is vital to train to proficiency and scenario based. Training, these days, for a certificate or rating seems all to often to be just that. If we only train applicants to pass a checkride or fly with them to check off boxes on a sylabus, we are doing a grave disservice not only to the pilot and their pasengers but to all of mankind. I could say much more on this subject but in closing, do to the greivous incompetence on the part of the pilot which seemed to focus on his apparent lapse of common sense, that being the key factor in this, I dislike calling it an accident. I hope Cirrus wins their appeal, not likely. And I hope they learn two things from this 1) how to severly limit their liability exposure without adversely affecting sales and 2) That as a byproduct of that develope an more thourough and enhanced training program. I wanted to keep it brief so I’ll stop here for now!

  • Keith Bumsted

    This accident and this lawsuit are perfect examples of forces at work that will eventually extinguish personal use general aviation, part of a perfect storm of ruinously high costs for everything, an increasingly restrictive regulatory/security environment, and diminishing value of personal aircraft utilization. The trial court verdict in this case is another prime example of a dysfunctional civil justice system, FUBAR, primarily organized to serve the interests of the legal community (lawyers on both sides of the case were no doubt well paid, plaintiffs and defendants not so much). The lawyers, judges and court staff will continue to be paid until all appeals are exhausted — a process that typically takes years. As Bob Dole once said when someone asked him why he wanted to be Vice President, “It’s inside work and there’s no heavy lifting! ”

    The initial verdict in this case notwithstanding, we again witness two categories of pilot training, conspicuous by their absence, that played major roles in this incident: (1) risk management and (2) pilot discipline. While the principles and best practices of risk awareness, assessment/evaluation, management, control and mitigation are well known and extensively used outside of general aviation, they have not found a place in the pilot training curriculum or pilot evaluation process. Similarly, pilots are not trained or evaluated as to the extent to which they understand and reliably exhibit disciplined behaviors and attitudes. Since no pilot makes it to the left seat of an aircraft without first obtaining the endorsement of certificated flight instructors, we have a well positioned administrative mechanism to screen out pilots who are unable or unwilling to acquire the knowledge, skills, judgment and experience or to follow proper procedures so necessary for safe operation, but it will take a cultural sea change to implement it. Such a change will require enlightened leadership and support (AOPA/ASF, are you listening??), but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in this role.

    Discipline, like character, is what pilots do (or fail to do) when they think no one is looking, e.g., as when an inexperienced low time VFR pilot rolls out in pre-dawn darkness to a runway and blasts off into marginal winter weather conditions with a mega-stupid plan to scud run to better weather. In this case, the very real penalties for failing to assess the obvious risks involved and lack of proper discipline resulted (predictably) in complete destruction of a new aircraft along a 500-foot debris field through the trees, in the dark, and death of his passenger and himself. These penalties were swiftly and irrevocably imposed by natural laws — without discussion, negotiation, remorse, or apology.

    Of all the negative forces acting on GA today, pilot training and accident reduction are about the only areas where we have the ability to influence outcomes and lower system costs, and we continue to ignore the obvious solutions. It is a little like the the drunk who was observed on his hands and knees under the street light. When asked what he was doing, he said he was looking for his wallet that he thought had been lost along the way. When asked why he was looking in this particular spot, he said, “because the light’s better here.”

    Until reform is visited on the flight training environment and pilot evaluation standards and procedures, we’ll go on killing 500 to 600 people a year and suffering at the hands of the trial lawyers and others who profit handsomely from the mayhem. As an industry, we must be satisfied with this arrangement because we permit it to continue. I wish it weren’t so, but it seems to be the way the world works!

  • Derek

    Take a look at the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act”. We should push for something similar in the general aviation world.

    In a nutshell, the act says that you cannot sue a manufacturer for damages resulting from misuse or illegal use of their product. Personally, I believe we need to expand this legislation to all products, however it’s criticaly important in industries like aviation where profits run thin and a lawsuit could easily knock out a company.

  • Jim Crone

    So here we go again. An idiot (defined by Webster’s as the LOWEST measureable form of intelligence) who is NOT instrument rated, intentionally flies into IMC and kills himself. This is more commonly known as NATURAL SELECTION. Yet somehow an attorney was able to convince more idiots – also known as jurors – that it was the fault of the aircraft manufacturer and flight school.

    Perhaps I was misled into thinking that the product liability reform dance that we went through back in the 80’s/90’s had somehow resolved this imbecilic question. Quite obviously the issue has NOT been resolved. This is costing all of us (that would be anyone involved in ANY aviation related business) just so that some attorney can line his pockets.

    There needs to be a revolution of sorts. Realize from basic police and criminal science that any time a crook can strike it rich on any particular heist/scam/sting, it is a well known fact that said crook WILL strike again. Wouldn’t you?

  • john slegers

    Cirrus promotes and instructs, when ever the pilot gets his dumb ass into a situation he can’t handle ” pull the chute”. What happened this time? The chute malfunction?

  • sam ferguson

    “There needs to be a revolution of sorts.” I couldnt agree more, but it aint going to be easy. Basically we have lawyers making laws which is a direct conflict of interest as they protect their own interests. Look at our government that is basically run and created by lawyers to benefit lawyers and their own power structure.

    I find it hard to believe Cirrus couldn’t have done a better job of protecting themselves: either before or after the fact. I would hope they appeal as far as they can appeal, and I would hope in some way we could help them and others from not facing the same fate. This litigation of individuals vs insurance companies and corporations is draining our countries productivity far above any reasonable amount. Just the other day i saw a law firm that sues somebody or something (God?) for sinkhole damage.

    We either have a revolution of sorts, or we go right back down the drain we are trying to climb out of today. Our choice.

  • Bill Renaud

    Looks to me like the defense attorney for Cirrus and UND failed to adequately explain to the jury that an instrument rating is the responsibility of the pilot, not the aircraft manufacturer. The training by Cirrus is only upgrade training for this specific aircraft model and is not intended to be a complete substitute for proper training to an FAA curriculum. I’ll bet Cirrus will be tightening up their agreements that they have a pilot sign before providing this type of factory training in the future.

  • sam ferguson

    One more immediate option (to a revolution which woulld take a lot of time and resources) would be for a placarded liability waiver type of federal law to be enacted. We use, at the state level, in Florida, the same legal device to protect the horse owner from liability claims of people that want to sue from injury due to horses. Farms and barns only need to have a placard stating that they are not liable for someones injury since horses (like airplanes) can have inherent dangers. An organization such as the AOPA could get the ball rolling in this regard. An attorney, Mike Siboni, in Ocala Florida, who also does aviation law, is quite familar with equine law and the liability law described above.

  • sam ferguson

    I guess I am on a roll now: wasnt there just a report that AIG was not paying off suits involving the UAL geese/Hudson river landing? Again, I dont understand who was at fault. The geese would appear to have been. Did they have the proper liabioity insurance? How could anybody responsibly sue anybody over that crash? Oh, I just saw another billboard that was an attorney group that covers “geese run-ins”. Now i get it: the attorneys run this world…

  • robert k thornquist

    Note that the only one supporting the award (DANKO) is a slimy lawyer for plaintiffs in aviation matters (check his web page). Do these “people” care about ANYTHING other than their next fat paycheck, to hell with the consequences? “My clients have been grieviosly injured and need $14M to make them whole (I get 40%)”

  • Jeremy Hanna

    Richard Dove makes an exelent point above in my opinion. A ‘jury of peers’ in these cases should be required to have a private pilot on the jury. How much weight do you think it would carry with the rest of the jury when another pilot tells them ‘He should have known better; even with no Cirrus training, if he’s a private pilot, he’s been trained NOT to make this flight”.

  • Ken

    From the first day we get into an airplane to acquire a pilot’s license, we are taught the important lessons of risk managment and proper decision making. Much has been said about “the lack of proper training” that led to this accident. In my my opinion, if after 250 hours of flying an aircraft this pilot could not see the danger in what he was doing, then he simply had no business being in an airplane period!! Scud running at 100 AGL?! I find it very difficult to believe that at ANY point in his training he was taught that this type of flying could ever be done safely. It was a personal decision on his part and he was undoubtedly well aware of the potential consequences. It’s a clear case of “get thereitis”.

    I agree 100% that there should have been at least one pilot on this jury. We, after all, would have been his peers. The general public understands very little about the aviation system and how it works to protect us as pilots. Nor can they be expected to. So how is it that they are given the responsibility of potentially deciding the fate of a successful aircraft manufacturer? The system failed!! As pilots, however, we all know who is the final authority as to the safety of EVERY flight. It is certainly not the manufacturer or even the instructor who trained the pilot. It’s the person sitting in that left seat.