A jury verdict against Duluth-based Cirrus Design is likely to reignite the product liability vs. personal responsibility debate.
According to MPR’s Elizabeth Stawicki, Cirrus and the University of North Dakota have to pay $14.5 million to the families of James Kosak and Gary Prokop. The suit claimed the organizations didn’t properly train the two to fly in bad weather (“instrument meteorological conditions” or IMC). Their plane crashed not long after take-off from Grand Rapids in January 2003 for a flight to St. Cloud.
“By all appearances, one day of in-flight training on how to fly the airplane in bad weather conditions was skipped, ” Attorney Phil Sieff said when the lawsuit was filed in 2006. “We believe it would have given him the tools to avoid the crash. If you agree to provide four days of training, you do it. We think there was a very specific identifiable failure to train this guy as they said they would.”
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot had undergone flight training from Cirrus when he bought the plane just six weeks earlier, but his completion certificate specified he shouldn’t fly in “instrument” weather conditions.
According to the NTSB, the pilot received a weather briefing before leaving Grand Rapids and was told it would be marginal. (See narrative). And the NTSB blamed the accident on the pilot. “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,” the official report said.
The verdict may add to another debate in aviation circles: Whether the Cirrus Design airplanes are too much airplane for relatively inexperienced pilots.
At the end of 2008, according to a Cirrus owners group, there had been 44 fatal accidents with 88 fatalities and 13 serious injuries, and 29 survivors. More than 4,000 models of the airplane were flying.
The organization also points out that “all but one of the 28 probable causes determined by NTSB accident investigations lists pilot causes.” It said the large number of crashes in which pilots inadvertently flew into bad weather “suggests that the increased situational awareness in a Cirrus SR2X was not sufficient to help those accident pilots escape bad weather encounters. And the IFR-in-IMC accidents suggest a lack of proficiency with flying in challenging weather.” The question: Whose fault is that?
But the majority of fatal accidents involving a Cirrus plane, involved experienced pilots. The only Cirrus accident in which the pilot had fewer than 150 hours of flight experience, was the New York crash with New York Yankee pitcher Cory Liddle.
His family is suing Cirrus, too.