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.
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.
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.
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,
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”