Should the plaintiff have prevailed? (Aviation accident)

In nutshell:
[ul][li]The pilot of a Beechcraft Bonanza could not verify that his landing gear was down and locked, so he communicated his problem to the controller.[/li][li]Another Bonanza and a Cessna 172 were operating in the area.[/li][li]The gear-trouble Bonanza flew away from the airport to try to resolve the problem.[/li][li]Miles away from the gear-trouble Bonanza, the other Bonanza and the Cessna collided resulting in fatal injuries to both pilots and the passengers of the Cessna.[/li][li]The estate of the pilot of the accident Bonanza brought suit against the gear-trouble Bonanza pilot and was awarded $2 million.[/ul][/li]The plaintiffs charged that the pilot of the gear-trouble Bonanza distracted the pilots of the accident Bonanza and the Cessna by overuse of the radio, as did the controller on the ground. The controller stated that the gear-trouble Bonanza pilot did not interfere with her abilities to perform her duties, did not disrupt, distract or confuse her, and that that if the pilot had used the frequency excessively she would have told him to maintain radio silence.

The defense also brought forth an expert witness who had been the chairman of the aviation department of a leading university, and had been an FAA designated examiner for 32 years. He opined that the gear-trouble Bonanza pilot’s actions were consistent with federal regulations and safety guidelines and that the pilot’s actions were appropriate.

The claimants produced a witness who held himself out to be an expert in air traffic control and pilot and airport operations. He felt that the pilot of the gear-trouble Bonanza used the frequency excessively. The pilot used the frequency for a total of 36 minutes over 163 transmissions. Ninety-three transmissions were before the collision of the other two aircraft (of which he initiated 31), and 70 were after (of which he initiated 35). The claimants also produced an accident reconstruction expert who was a USAF fighter pilot for 27 years who said that the pilot of the gear-trouble Bonanza should have just lowered the landing gear manually and not talked on the radio so much.

The jury found for the paintiffs.

I was taught that it is the pilot’s responsibility to ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft, and that distractions are not allowed. My (airplane) instructor and (helicopter) examiner both commented favourably when I asked them to stand by while I dealt with a simulated emergency and rising terrain. I’ve also flown in very busy airspace where a pilot can scarcely get a word in on the frequency. Even if another pilot is causing a distraction (and in this case, from what I read, I don’t think he was) it is the responsibility of all other pilots in the area not to run into each other. (We’re talking VFR here.) So I think the fault lies with the pilots of the accident aircraft, and not with the pilot who was miles away; and I think the jury made the wrong decision.

The article is in the July 2006 issue of AOPA Pilot in the Pilot Council column.

I don’t know enough to have an opinion as to the verdict. I wasn’t there to evaluate the testimony and other evidence.

A few things struck me as I read your outline, though. Most are questions that came to mind as I read:

  1. In a multiple death case, this seems to be an unremarkable amount. Liability and damages are unrelated issues. 2. Did the estate sue anyone else?*

I agree, this seems to be good evidence for the defense. But her testimony may have been shown to be biased on cross, or otherwise not have been believed by the jury. I don’t know. Wasn’t there. But if the controller did screw up (according to other evidence), I might not automatically buy her testimony that essentially amounts to “No I didn’t.”

Nice qualifications. He would seem to qualify as an expert

“held himself out”? “he felt”? Slant much? I highly doubt that the judge allowed this guy as an expert if his only qualifications were vague and self proclaimed. Did he have expert qualifications, or didn’t he?

36 minutes over what amount of time? 40 minutes? 2 hours? It makes a difference.

So there was conflicting expert testimony, and the jury found one set of experts to be more credible, after hearing that testimony, and cross examination of each expert.

Maybe so. But you weren’t there. Would your opinion change if the evidence showed that one of the “accident aircraft” pilots (the one whose estate did the suing) did everything correctly, and the other accident aircraft pilot screwed up and caused the accident because he was distracted by the antics of the gear pilot? Are both accident-aircraft pilots automatically equally at fault? *Maybe there was more than one defendant here.

Perhaps not the most impartial source. Got a general news cite to this case? Or better yet, a legal cite?

You’ve left out pertinent information. Was the other bananza pilot AND the Cessna pilot on an IFR flight plan and were they aware of each other? When you say controller are you referring to Center Control, Approach Control or the Control Tower?

To my understanding if they were operating under VFR then the ultimate responsibility was with the pilot regardless of radar service.

With that said I recall a fun incident going into Oshkosh (VFR) and was mis-identified as a different airplane from a ground spotter (Piper Tri-Pacer vs Piper Colt). Since I was use to the mis-identfication I followed the directions given me to turn 90 deg to the right. Well, the plane behind me turned out to be a Tri-Pacer and began following the same instructions. The controller conversation went as follows: ** “No Tri-Pacer I want you to go straight”** (I started banking back left 90 deg as did the Tri-Pacer behind me) **“No, FIRST Tri-Pacer turn right 90 deg, SECOND Tri-Pacer continue straight”. **

You have to face it, even though juries are not “supposed” to consider insurance coverage - they do. They probably felt that the defendant’s insurance would cover it.

From the article:

It doesn’t say anything else about his qualifications.

I did not see the time span.

In my opinion the pilots of the accident aircraft failed to ‘see and avoid’. It is ultimately the pilot’s responsibility not to run into things. One of the accident pilots could have been ‘blindsided’, but I’d still say at least one of them was at fault. As for other defendants:

Since the pilot of the first Bonanza was not involved in the collision, I don’t see where he would have a case. Confusing paragraph with not enough information.

None that I could find.

There is no mention of an IFR flight plan. The Cessna was on a sight-seeing flight. The air traffic controller sighted one of the Bonanzas with binoculars, so she appears to have been in the tower. (This was at Meigs, BTW.)

The case appears to be Walker vs. Segal from 2004. Collission was actually in 1997. It does not appear to be a reported case. (which means the opinion is not published in books or most databases.)

One online source (admittedly biased) describes it as follows:


Here’s a related Federal case, which descibes some of the facts:

I am neither a pilot nor a lawyer, so please take this statement with a grain or two of salt.

Based on the quote Random found, it sounds like the two pilots were put on notice (both indirectly through the chatter between the tower and the troubled aircraft, and directly by being specifically told to watch out for the troubled aircraft) that at least one other aircraft was in the vicinity and that they should keep an eye out. Common sense tells me that they should have been extra cautious at this point and looking very carefully for any other aircraft near them.

But again, I wasn’t in the courtroom, so it’s hard to say. Just my two cents.

Not that it’s relevant but the Bonanza with the mechanical should have diverted to Gary for a little support. It has a 7000 ft runway with a fire department. Hell, even Porter County would have been a better choice. Meigs was 1 notch above a dirt road on a rocky shore. It was a controlled airport in the sense that someone with a radio and binoculars controlled landing and taking off. The controlled space was a 5-mile circle. Clearly this was a VFR see-and-avoid situation and any communication with the tower should be looked at as additional support. It does not replace the VFR status of the aircraft involved. Since it was an emergency situation the other pilots should have exercised a little common sense and left the area. Sounds to me like they were rubber-necking the situation. The lawsuit was total BS

Since I have to go to work in a few minutes I don’t have time to delve into this in depth right now - among other things, I want to pull the NTSB report on this if I can find it.

As a long-time resident of the Chicago area and a pilot, let me say a few things off the bat.

First of all, it’s entirely possible the Cessna and Bonanza got into each other’s blind spots. A Cessna 172 (which, if I’m recalling the accident correctly, is the model involved) has a large blind spot above it because the wing blocks the pilot’s view (this is a “highwing airplane”). The Bonanza’s blind spot is below it (this is a “lowwing airplane”). A certain percentange of mid-airs occur because a highwing is beneath a lowwing and they are in each other’s blindspot. This could be a contributing factor and is nothing to sneeze at - but it wouldn’t be the fault of the pilot with landing grear trouble.

Second - in a mid-air, both pilots are considered at fault until proven otherwise. You always have a responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft, even when flying on an instrument flight plan if the weather allows you to see other traffic. This includes a responsibility to deviate from flight plan to avoid an accident You don’t need to ask ATC’s permission to avoid hitting something - you avoid the accident then report back to ATC what you did and why, after the danger is past.

Third - there are a bunch of other airports along that lakefront that should have been easily accessible - Waukegan, Palwaukee, Gary, Lansing, Griffith, Porter County (Valpariso)… to which any of the airplanes could have diverted. 10-15 minute flight or less.

I’ll try to add more later, when I get home.

What Asimovian said.

It would seem to me that the collision was avoidable because the other pilots should have been “up on their toes” given the situation.

Again, armchair quarterbacking, etc…

I remember that accident!

I wasn’t sure this morning, but I read the AOPA article and the NTSB database - this is the one where the Cessna had a flight instructor and student with passengers aboard for a sight-seeing trip. It’s also the one where a co-worker of mine the following Monday said I had to stop flying those dangerous little airplanes because it was causing her too much stress every time she heard about an accident. I doubt she really cared that much about my well-being… :rolleyes:

July 19, 1997. Seven deaths. A Cessna 172P: N5323K. Bonanza A-36: N107IL. I can’t get the NTSB file to open on this machine, but IIRC it was four dead on the Cessna and 3 on the Bonanza.

A little more background - there is a “VFR flyway” along the Chicago shoreline which included Meigs airspace. Think of it as a road in the sky. It was a recommended route both for traffic control (and the skies above Chicago are quite crowded) and because it would allow for a landing on dry ground in the event of an engine failure.

From what I gather in the AOPA article, the Bonanza in distress parked himself over the “south crib”, that is, a water intake for the city of Chicago which is a highly visible landmark (watermark, actually, as it is well out into the big lake) that is also off the VFR flyway path. In other words, he was well out of the way.

The AOPA article also states that the Bonanza estate sued the estate of the dead flight instructor from the Cessna… but I’m guessing they probably got very little as the average flight instructor has few to no assets and very little income.

Chicago juries are ******* stupid (I say that, even though - or because - I’ve been on one) and Chicago as a general rule has its head up its *** about aviation in general, so I’m not entirely surprised as the verdict.

But the cause of death wasn’t distraction by a Bonanza with gear problems - it was a classic highwing/lowwing conflict while entering the traffic pattern.

Meigs was always a bad place for an accident - the tower controller didn’t have radar, just the eyeball Mark I and binoculars, and a crapload of traffic. The traffic pattern was over the water, which ensured the safety of tourists in Grant Park but virtually guaranteed death for anyone in an airplane in the event of an accident.

While the $2 million for the fatality isn’t outrageous by trial verdict standards, the conclusion is crap by aviation standards. The Bonanza with gear problems was not at fault - the two planes approaching a field in VFR conditions and under VFR rules who collided were at fault, and probably equally. You don’t need a radio to land an airplane. In fact, I have flown without a radio off and on for 11 years and have managed to avoid collision. You DO need to pay attention, though. Might as well sue the estates of the Cessna passengers… but if I recall, they were also young and without assets.

I’m surprised they didn’t sue the aircraft manufacturers for producing a design that’s so unbelievably dangerous when it’s within a mile of aircraft that are designed in the alternate manner. (High-wing vs low-wing) Sounds like they also forgot to sue Beech for producing an aircraft that developed trouble with the landing gear.

I’m being silly, but it does seem rare that an aviation lawsuit goes on without carpet-bombing the industry - everyone from the manufacturer down to the FBO flunky who opens boxes and puts widgets onto the racks for the Airframe & Powerplant technician to use. After all, the guy might have put part number MD-05009433512/B into the bin that part number MD-05009433512/C was supposed to be in. If he wasn’t negligent, the A&P tech wouldn’t have installed the wrong part. Oh yeah, the A&P tech is also sued because he installed the wrong part, and the FBO is sued for not forseeing the negligent actions of their parts clerk and A&P tech. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s been a suit somewhere that UPS was named for dropping a box, damaging the part.

This particular suit strikes me odd in two ways - the first is that it’s absurd that a poor chap with stuck gear is being blamed for two other planes colliding, and the second is that the award is relatively small and there didn’t seem to be the usual “find the deep pockets!” barrage of suits naming folks that are likely to pony up a settlement to have the claim quietly dismissed, rather than spend the big bucks to lawyer up and defend themselves.

I was riding on the 405 a little bit ago, and a Goodyear blimp was making a landing approach to its field. I imagined a couple of people who may have been visiting the area and who had never been that close to a blimp before gawking at it, and in their inattention crashing into each other. In trying to recover they both veer of the freeway and are killed. I wondered if their estates would sue Goodyear.

I don’t know, but next time I crash my car after laughing at a funny joke on the radio, I’m gonna sue the bastards!

Seriously, the radio distracted me from driving my plane? Come on! It didn’t work on the ferry vs. recreational boat (link) and shouldn’t have worked in planes either.