When the Defective Part is Made of Paper: Aircraft Manuals and GARA

A passenger injured in an aircraft accident can't sue the aircraft manufacturer if the part that caused the crash is older than 18 years. Any such suit would be barred by the General Aviation Revitalization Act, or GARA.

What if the accident was caused by a mistake in one of the aircraft's manuals rather than a defect in the aircraft itself?  If the manual is older than 18 years, does GARA protect the manufacturer from liability for its error? 

It depends.  The manufacturer is off the hook if the manual is properly considered a "part" of the aircraft.  Some manuals are. Some aren't.

A flight manual (sometimes called a "pilot's operating handbook" or "flight handbook") is properly considered "part" of the aircraft, and so GARA protects the manufacturer. For example, in Caldwell v. Enstrom Helicopters, the pilot's family blamed a helicopter crash on the flight manual's failure to say that the last two gallons of fuel in the helicopter were unusable.  As a result, the pilot believed he had sufficient fuel but in fact did not.  He crashed just minutes from his destination.

The Caldwell court said that Twin Bonanza Flight Manualmanufacturers are required by regulation to provide a flight manual when it delivers the aircraft to the customer.  The manual must be carried in the aircraft at all times thereafter. Therefore, the manual was properly considered to be an aircraft "part."  Because the manual at issue was more than 18 years old, GARA applied to protect the manufacturer from liability for any errors. 

But the situation is different when the manual is a maintenance manual. A manufacturer can sell an aircraft without providing to the buyer a maintenance manual.  Thus maintenance manuals, unlike flight manuals, are not a "part " of the aircraft, and GARA doesn't apply. At least according to Rogers v. Bell Helicopters Textron, a case decided earlier this month by a California appellate court. 

In Rogers, the pilot claimed the accident resulted from faulty instructions in a maintenance manual for balancing the helicopter's tail rotor. The court ruled that, despite the fact that the manual was more than 18 years, GARA didn't apply and so the pilot was entitled to sue.  

Unlike a flight manual that is unique to the aircraft, used by the pilot, and necessary to operate the aircraft, a maintenance manual applies to different aircraft models, is used by the mechanic, and only for troubleshooting and repairing the aircraft.

According to Rogers,, GARA won't protect a manufacturer from liability for mistakes in its maintenance manuals, regardless of how old the manuals are. 

The plaintiff in Rogers was represented by Louis Franecke of San Rafael. 

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Cloudesley Shovell - June 28, 2010 5:06 AM

In regards the Caldwell case . . . NTSB aviation crash report archives are full of crashes where the pilot ran out of fuel just short of the destination.

A pilot who purports to rely upon the last 2 gallons of fuel to get him to his destination is a fool, and has only himself to blame. What about that pesky 14 CFR 91.151, which requires 20 minutes reserve fuel for day VFR helicopter flight? I'd wager an Engstrom helicopter burns a fair bit more than 6 gallons an hour at normal cruise. (Enstrom's own data says 16 gph--see http://www.enstromhelicopter.com/enstrom_new/documents/2010%20PISTON%20DOC.pdf

What chutzpah to blame the POH. The only defective part in that aircraft was located between the headset earphones.

I couldn't find any ultimate dispostion in Caldwell--any idea what ultimately happened?

Regards,
CS

Mike Danko - June 28, 2010 7:21 AM

The regulations require that the pilot *begin* the flight with a fuel reserve. If the pilot encounters unforecast winds or other conditions that make it necessary for him to dip into his fuel reserves -- well, that's what the reserves are for. The regulations do not require the helicopter pilot to have 20 minutes of fuel remaining when he *lands.*

If a helicopter pilot, due to unforecast conditions, has to fly into his reserves, he may have to make a decision. Land short of his destination at an unprepared site, with all its attendant risks? Or continue to the destination? In making that decision, the pilot is entitled to rely on accurate information from the manufacturer concerning how much of the fuel remaining in the tanks is useable.

I don't know how the Caldwell case turned out ultimately. Maybe another reader knows?

Cloudesley Shovell - July 4, 2010 4:13 AM

The NTSB report is rather enlightening. LAX97FA086.

The mishap flight was a sight-seeing tour on a clear VFR day, winds 5 kts. There were no unforecast conditions or circumstances that made it necessary to dip into reserves.

Macaw Helicopters is apparently located at the Coral Ocean Point Resort Club, which would explain why the helicopters are refueled by hand from temporary fuel drums on a rooftop heliport.

The crash happened 48 minutes (0.8 hours) into a flight that was supposed to last 0.5-0.7 hours. The crash happened 10 minutes from the destination (the rooftop helipad) but only 3 miles from Saipan International Airport. Hardly a risky landing site.

It's painfully obvious what happened here. The pilot departed on a longer-than-normal sightseeing flight not knowing exactly how much fuel he had. He ran out of fuel because of his lousy preflight planning, not because he was relying on that last 2 gallons. Even if he was relying on that last 2 gallons, he was intentionally violating 14 CFR 91.151, because there is utterly no evidence that any unforeseen condition occurred making it necessary to fly into his fuel reserves.

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