A Philadelphia jury has determined that a defective carburetor caused the 1999 crash of single-engine aircraft that killed four and injured one. The aircraft, a Piper Cherokee Six, was manufactured in 1968. The jury’s verdict included $25 million for compensatory damages and $64Piper Cherokee Six - PA32 million as punitive damages against the engine manufacturer Avco Lycoming, a division of Textron.

Since the Aircraft was Older than 18 Years, Why Didn’t the General Aviation Revitalization Act Protect Lycoming from Liability?

There are a number of exceptions to the General Aviation Revitalization Act (known as GARA). In particular, GARA doesn’t apply when the manufacturer, in obtaining FAA certification of its part, conceals from the FAA information about defects in the part’s design. The jury in this case determined that Lycoming did just that. Thus, GARA was no defense.

The NTSB Determined the Cause of the Crash was Pilot Error. Its Report Didn’t Say Anything About a Defective Carburetor. Why Wasn’t the Jury Bound by the NTSB’s Findings?

The NTSB’s accident reports almost always favor the manufacturers. That’s because the NTSB relies on the manufacturer for help in determining the cause of the crash it is investigating. The NTSB calls this method of investigation the “party system.” 

Of course, asking the manufacturer for help in figuring out if thPrecision Carburetorere was a defect in its engine is much like asking the fox for help in determining what happened to the chickens. There’s a built-in conflict of interest. The NTSB is aware of the conflict, but continues using the party system anyway.

Here, after consulting with Lycoming’s experts, the NTSB decided not even to examine the carburetor. Since the NTSB never tore down this critical component, it’s no surprise that the NTSB did not discover any problems with it.

Fortunately for the victims’ families, the NTSB’s conclusions are by regulation inadmissible in court.

Why Did the Jury Award Punitive Damages?

A jury cannot award punitive damages simply because the defendant was negligent, or just

because the design of a defendant’s product was proven defective. Rather, the defendant’s conduct must evidence a “conscious disregard of the safety of others.”

Here, the jury determined that Lycoming willfully concealed from the FAA information concerning possible defects in its carburetor – even though it knew that any such defects could cause unnecessary injury or death. That fact alone demonstrates that Lycoming acted in conscious disregard of the safety of others, and justifies a punitive damages award.

The punitive damages in this case amounted to about 10 percent of Avco Lycoming’s net worth. The jury determined that that sum was sufficient to dissuade Lycoming from hiding from the FAA its knowledge of defective parts in the future. In other words, it was an amount calculated to take the profit out of Lycoming’s wrongdoing.

Why Didn’t Lycoming Just Settle Instead of Going to Trial?

Good question.  Lycoming’s best settlement offer was $75,000 to be split among all the plaintiffs.  In other words, Lycoming offered plaintiffs virtually nothing.  It was Lycoming, not the plaintiffs, who forced the matter to trial.

What other Factors were at Play?

According to the report of the plaintiffs’ attorney, the court had ordered Lycoming to turn over to plaintiffs all relevant documents about the carburetor before trial. Lycoming, however, intentionally withheld certain documents without telling plaintiffs that they existed. Lycoming’s litigation strategy – if it can be called that – backfired when the plaintiff’s attorney obtained the documents from another source and then proved during trial that Lycoming was hiding evidence.

Is this Verdict Unprecedented?

The plaintiffs’ attorneys did a wonderful job overcoming many obstacles that the manufacturer placed in their path over the last 9 years or so.  And punitive damages awards are rare indeed.

But while the verdict in this case is out of the ordinary, the story underlying the verdict is not:

  • Aviation manufacturers have a history of concealing defects in the design of their products.
  • After an accident, manufacturers frequently convince the NTSB to look no further than the pilot, or perhaps a mechanic, as the cause of the crash. Just as Lycoming did here, they often convince the NTSB that there is no need to dig into their engine before completing its report.
  • When the defect is discovered by experts hired by the victims’ families, the manufacturers adopt a “defend at all costs” mentality.  Just as did Lycoming, manufacturers generally refuse to accept any responsibility for the harm they have caused unless and until a jury requires them to. 

Another example involving a more recent crash and a Teledyne Continental Motors engine is discussed here and here.

Related Material: The plaintiff attorney’s account of the verdict.