Appeals Court: Cirrus not responsible for plane crash that killed two

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling that held Duluth-based Cirrus Design responsible for teaching people who buy its airplanes how to fly them safely (I wrote about the earlier decision here).

The ruling comes in the case of Gary Prokop and James Kosak, who died in January 2003 while on a flight from Grand Rapids to St. Cloud to attend their sons’ hockey tournament. The estate of the passenger — Kosak — sued Cirrus and Prokop’s estate, claiming Cirrus omitted training on how to escape instrument meteorological conditions (primarily, darkness) and snow). Prokop was not rated to fly in such conditions.

At issue, is whether the pilot knew how to turn on an autopilot, designed to help pilots who get into trouble and lose direction.

A jury awarded Kosak’s next of kin $7.4 million and Prokop’s next of kin $12 million.

But the Appeals Court ruled today that “although proficiency training undoubtedly promoted the safe use of the SR22 (model of airplane), we find no support in the law for (the) proposition that Cirrus’s duty to warn included an obligation to train Prokop to proficiently pilot the SR22.”

The court noted that a handbook given to aircraft purchasers provided the instructions on how to activate and operate the autopilot, and it said Cirrus fulfilled its legal responsibility to warn the owner of the risks involved in piloting a plane.

The Court also ruled that Cirrus cannot be held liable for the effectiveness of its training program because of Minnesota laws barring educational malpractice complaints.

But Appeals Court Justice Roger Klaphake disagreed. “While transition training may not be required as a matter of law, once Cirrus made it a part of the purchase agreement, Cirrus voluntarily assumed a duty to provide the promised training,” he wrote in his dissent.

Here is the full opinion from the court.

After the district court’s original ruling, the Legal Broadcasting Network interviewed Dan OFallon and Phil Sieff, counsel for the family of James Kosak. O’Fallon and Sieff of counsel with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis.

$16.4 MILLION JURY AWARD OVER 2003 PLANE CRASH from Sequence Media on Vimeo.

Update 7/18/12 The Supreme Court has upheld the Appeals Court decision. The Associated Press says:

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Duluth-based Cirrus Design Corp. had no legal duty to provide a flight lesson to a Grand Rapids man whose plane crashed in 2003, killing him and his passenger,

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The families of pilot Gary Prokop and passenger James Kosak will not receive the more than $16 million in damages a jury awarded them three years ago. Dissenting justices and attorneys for the plaintiffs feared the decision could have negative consequences for consumers. :

“To say we’re disappointed would be an understatement,” said Ed Matonich, an attorney for Prokop’s family. “In my opinion, this ruling does not bode well for any citizen of Minnesota who is wrongfully injured in the future.”

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Prokop, 47, and Kosak, 51, left Hill City on Jan. 18, 2003, for St. Cloud to watch their sons play in a hockey tournament. The Cirrus SR22 crashed shortly after takeoff. The families alleged Cirrus and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation didn’t provide adequate pilot training. :

Prokop, a licensed pilot since 2001, had bought the plane roughly a month before the crash. At the time, he was given an operating handbook including emergency instructions. Cirrus also included two days of training in the purchase price, but Prokop did not receive in-flight training that would have included a maneuver to help him recover from an emergency in inclement weather.:

Itasca County District Court found Cirrus and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation negligent in 2009, and a jury awarded damages. But in April 2011, the appeals court reversed that decision. Wednesday’s opinion upholds the appeals court ruling.

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The state Supreme Court found that manufacturers have a duty to warn of product dangers if it is reasonably foreseeable that someone could be injured. In this case, the justices said, the written instructions were enough. :

“But there is no duty for suppliers or manufacturers to train users in the safe use of their product. Indeed, imposing a duty to train would be wholly unprecedented,” Justice Barry Anderson wrote in the majority opinion.:

The majority ruled that even if Cirrus assumed a duty to provide a flight lesson by agreeing to do so at the point of purchase, families could not recover damages under tort law.

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Justices Paul Anderson and Alan Page disagreed.:

“I conclude the majority’s holding usurps the role of the jury and misreads our precedent,” Anderson wrote in a dissenting opinion. :

He also said the majority overstepped its authority and he was concerned about the far-reaching consequences, saying the opinion “essentially held that no consumer of a dangerous product may ever hold a supplier liable for personal injury arising out of defective nonwritten instructions.”:

The dissent also found it “absurd” that a supplier of an airplane would be held to the same standard as the supplier of a coffee pot.

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Philip Sieff, an attorney for Kosak’s family, said he was disappointed the majority ignored a reasoned jury decision, and he agreed that there could be a potential for serious consequences down the line.:

Bill King, vice president of business administration for Cirrus, said his company isn’t required to provide in-flight training but offers it because “it’s the right thing to do.”

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King said the decision gives manufacturers the ability to train people to use their products without fear of retribution if someone has an accident. But, he added: “There are still two families who are in crisis over an accident, and that is not lost on us.”

  • Chris

    I’m glad the courts found the manufacturer not liable. Unfortunately the pilot flew the airplane into conditions he was not prepared for. However, no matter how good the airplane was, the pilot was specifically prohibited from entering clouds by the FAA. This is known to all “VFR” pilots.

  • junoflydog

    Cirrus should not be held liable for a VFR pilot flying into IMC anymore than General Motors be held liable for speeders.

  • joseph

    Minor nit: Your link to the jury award article lists “Kosak” twice instead of Prokop ($12m) and Kosak ($7.4m).

    (Bob: Fixed. Thanks!)

  • Adam R.

    Cirrus promotes safety as a selling point for its products, but their fatal accident rate is actually slightly worse than comparable aircraft.

    The pilot indeed deserves blame for continuing VFR flight into IMC, but Cirrus should share liability for its aggressive campaign to convince its customers that their airplanes afford an extra margin of safety, which is a demonstrably false claim.

  • Rich Nasser

    Ridiculous that we had to go to such lengths – it’s like my family suing Honda because the company didn’t teach me that I should stop at a red light!

    As for the safety of the Cirrus: I think the plane is the among the safest out there – so for Adam R’s comment, perhaps it’s the type of pilot who buys a Cirrus and not the plane itself.

    Folks with big egos and wallets are still bound by the laws of physics just like the rest of us.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t want to disparage people who buy airplanes; it’s a more human factors issue than that.

    I’ve written extensively about Cirrus on my aviation blog so I won’t bother repeating it here.

    What we DO know, thanks to Richard Collins’ work, is that there really isn’t much of a correlation between flight experience and the accident rate in airplanes. Instead, there is a relationship between the accident rate and the time in type.

    In other words, a pilot is at the most risk when transitioning from one type of airplane to another. In this case, the pilot was transitioning from, I believe, a Cessna 172 to the SR22.

    The Cirrus does have a lot of safety features. But as glass panels have become standard in planes, they also add a level of complexity to a pilot’s workload in the initial hours.

    One other aspect of this story is in order to use an airplane’s safety features, you have to know you need to use them. If this accident is similar to the JFK Jr. accident, he may never have known he was in a bad situation. He may well have thought he was flying straight and level when — like the JFK accident — he was in a spiral.

    The instruments — primarily airspeed and altimeter — will tell you this but one of the first things we learn when learning to fly is to trust the instruments and ignore what your brain is telling you.

    It’s a big workload but unfortunately a lot of pilots don’t know just how big a workload it is until it’s thrust upon them.

  • Richard Blumenstein

    Pilots who belong to Cirrus Owners Pilots Assoc (COPA) and who regularly use its resources and training have SIGNIFICANTLY less fatal accidents. I believe that a lot of these pilots wander into conditions where they don’t belong, because they think that the parachute will probably get them out of almost any situation. Would they have gone into those conditions in an aircraft that didn’t have that parachute?

    …and also it’s probably the “Bonaza doctor-killer syndrome” all over again, but this time in a Cirrus.

  • Robert P

    Adam R,

    Could it be that there are so many Cirrus aircraft in the skies owned by pilots who utilized them regularly that the accident rate is higher because they fly more hours? Is there another aircraft of normal certification category that is fitted with a BRS chute as standard equipment?

    I agree with Rich. The pilot caused the plane to crash, not the plane. That it took so much litigation to establish that is disgusting.

  • Paul Mulwitz

    While I don’t go as far as suggesting actual liability for Cirrus regarding their sales strategy, I do think it is a step in the wrong direction.

    Pilots of all types should have a high level of professionalism, and it is that attitude that keeps most of them alive. The notion that a plane is equipped with so much safety equipment that sloppy piloting is OK is a big first step toward fatal accidents.

    I do agree with the general idea of the appeals court that Cirrus isn’t liable for sloppy pilot training. All pilots are required to hold federal pilot’s licenses and the required training to get that license includes plenty of material about weather and the need to see where you are going to fly VFR. The same training also requires all pilots to be able to perform minimal instrument flight sufficient to do the turn around without the aid of the autopilot mentioned in this litigation.

    As is nearly always the case, when an accident happens it is the pilot’s fault.

  • John Prescott

    Many years ago aviation had an over-generalized expression to describe a class of successful aircraft owners who appeared to have more money than training, judgment and skill. When they performed a “lawn dart” maneuver we sadly remarked, “Another doctor in a Bonanza”.

    This expression was later replaced by, “The Thurman Munson Syndrome”.

    To this sad list we must now add, “A successful guy in an SR-20/22”. The plane is safe; the pilots are often much less so. Perhaps the promise of the BRS parachute lulls them into complacency. Does anyone remember Cory Lidle, who missed crashing his SR-20 into my own NYC apartment building by about 300 feet?

  • Walter Untersee, Jr.

    It should have been obvious that the responsibility of a VFR pilot is to stay in VFR conditions. Unfortunately the ego allowed him to continue to push on and ultimately get in over his head. Hard lesson to learn. The fact that a jury panel consists of non-pilots that did not understand these pilot responsibilities was the reason for the original opinion. What a waste of resources!

  • David Braun

    Good reporting in both articles, Bob.

    As someone who grew up flying on Steam Gauges, and made his first Bonanza cross country at 99.7 hours I can state that for me, it was easier to transition to a fast, complex airplane from a C172 than the difficulty I experienced when I first flew a Cirrus with a glass panel.

    I’m still much more comfortable with the standard gauges, and from my experience, feel that I would have to fly many hours on progressively more difficult flights before I would attempt to take off in conditions similar to that which were encountered in this tragic flight, and that’s even with my commercial and instrument ratings. I can’t even fathom how someone could launch without the required training, whether offered by Cirrus or not.

    It’s sad, but this case should never have gone this far.

  • Beavereater

    Law school 101, personal responsibility is a myth.

  • Bob Collins

    I have a Dynon D100 in the RV-7A I’m building, David, but right next to it are the 3 1/2″ altimeter and airspeed indicator as a backup . It’ll be interesting to see which I end up using more.

    Of course, I’m just a VFR guy, all I need are the ability to hear the sound of the engine, an altimeter, and an airspeed indicator to fly; and I’m unbelievably conservative when it comes to go-no go.

    That said, in transitioning from a Warrior to an RV-7A, I’m much concerned about the pace at which things will happen and my ability to stay ahead of the airplane.

  • Ralph Hallett

    Law school 101, there is no profit in personal responsibility.

  • Scott

    I am pretty sure that my basic pilot training included admonitions from my CFI about getting into IFR conditions. They went something like this:

    Me: “What happens if I stray into clouds and don’t pop right back out?”

    CFI: “Most likely you will die.”

    Me: “Just like that?”

    CFI: “Just like that. You don’t have the skills, tools or experience to cope with it, and the most likely outcome is catastrophic – upside down with the wings ripped off. If you find yourself flying into clouds, immediately turn 180 degrees and do everything you can to get out immediately. We’ll get into real instrument training once you complete your private ticket.”

    Me: “Well, I’m pretty good at this piloting stuff so far. You really think…”

    CFI: “That attitude makes you doubly likely to die. Stay out of clouds.”

    I’m pretty sure that the airplane manufacturer had nothing to do with this sequence, and I know that it helped me eventually learn safe, effective IFR skills on down the road.

  • Mark Grooms

    In my opinion, our court system needs to change the way juries are chosen. If the jury was truly made up of the pilot’s peers it would have consisted of twelve pilots, the true ‘peers of the plaintiff. What i mean is that a jury made up of twelve non-aviation people is NOT qualified to hear a case related to the operartion of an aircraft under any condition. The Justice who gave his opinion on ‘transition training’ also has, in my opinion, no idea what ‘transition training’ means in FAA language. Cirrus’ obligation, in my understanding of the FAA term ‘transition training,’ was to ‘check’ out the pilot in his new airplane, that is to make sure he could operate it safely in basic VFR conditions and be able to take off and land it safely and proficently operate its insturment and avionics package in VFR conditions.

    I believe that the Cirrus as with the Bonanza in years gone by, is a ‘Status purchase.’ The ownership of a new high performance aircraft goes right along with the ownership of large high performance boats, very fast cars, and trophy wives. All of these things say ‘look at me, see how wonderful I am.’ The price of a Cirrus ,in my opinion, virtually guarantees that it will be bought as a status symbol by a pilot who in all probability will not fly it often enough to remain even basically proficent in it.

    If the jury in this case had been made up of pilots or other aviation professionals the only conclusion they could have reached based on their knowledge of flying and FAA regulations and requirements is that the pilot flew an aircraft that was operating properly into conditions that: 1) he was not qualified to fly in – NIGHT IFR in weather conditions. 2) conditions the aircraft was not certified to fly in – known icing conditions. where there is snow there is ice.

    I am sorry fot the families of the two men who lost their lives but, in my opinion,the pilot should never have started the flight and he is responsible for the terrible outcome of that flight not the manufacturer of the aircraft.

  • Phil

    Cirrus should be able to recover their legal expenses from the victim’s estates.

  • Chris

    Note that it was not the pilot’s estate that sued — it was the passenger who sued both the pilot’s estate and Cirrus. The family of the pilot appears to have accepted the tragic circumstances. Although Cirrus is off the hook, it is questionable from the report whether the pilot’s estate will escape liability. And that should be a warning to GA pilots who like to share the experience of flight with friends or acquaintances.

  • SBlack

    Since when is an autopilot designed to get people out of trouble???? That is not what it is for at all! That should have been front and center in this case. If it is marketed by Cirrus as a safety device that is plain wrong. It is inviting people who can’t swim to jump into the deep end of the pool on the false promise that it will make them float! People should be barred from using it until they have demonstrated the ability to hand fly in IMC.

  • Clair

    I feel this video is a bit biased. I knew Mr. Prokop and his kids very well. When this happened there wasn’t talk around town about who’s or what’s to blame for the crash. We mourned. Two great men lost in an unfortunate way. When money is involved, of course blame has to be set upon someone, but everyone leaving comments, take it easy on the pilot. It’s a lot different when you know what their family went through and just looking to seek justice.