A pilot flew his new Cirrus into conditions of poor visibility and crashed, killing himself and his passenger. The passenger’s family sued not just the pilot, but Cirrus as well.
Why sue Cirrus? According to the family, Cirrus didn’t train the pilot properly when he showed up at the factory to pick up his new plane, and that contributed to the crash. The jury agreed, handing Cirrus Design one of the most controversial aviation verdicts in recent memory. It awarded more than $10 million to the families of the pilot and passenger.
But today, the court of appeals erased the verdict, and ordered that judgment be entered in favor of Cirrus. It ruled that, even if Cirrus failed to train the pilot properly, it doesn’t mean that the family has a right to sue.
Here’s the story.
The pilot, Gary Prokop, was relatively inexperienced. He did not have an instrument-rating. That means he was allowed to fly in good weather only. If a pilot without an instrument rating flies into clouds, he will likely quickly become disoriented, be unable to keep the aircraft right side up, lose control, and crash. That seems to be what happened, for example, last October when a Cirrus crashed near Agua Dulce, California.
The Pilot’s Purchase of the Cirrus
When a pilot buys a plane, he doesn’t just jump in and fly away, even if he is already licensed to fly. To be safe the pilot must be trained in the particular plane’s idiosyncrasies. In this case, that training — called "transition training" — was included in the SR22’s purchase price.
One of the items the pilot was supposed to learn was how to use the Cirrus’ sophisticated autopilot to reverse course in the event he inadvertently encountered poor weather. Inexplicably, however, his instructor skipped that lesson, but nonetheless signed the pilot off as having completed the transition training in full.
It’s not hard to guess what happened next. A month later, the pilot inadvertently encountered conditions of poor visibility. He did not have the skills necessary to turn around. Unable to see where he was going, he became disoriented, lost control, and crashed.
The Jury Verdict Against Cirrus
The jury was convinced that had the pilot been given the lesson he paid for, the outcome would have been different. They felt that the missing lesson cost the two men their lives. The jury found that the pilot was 25% at fault for the accident, and that the rest of the fault lay with Cirrus’ failure to train him as agreed.
The verdict was not well received by the piloting community, to say the least. In fact, they hated it. After all, the pilot is the captain of the ship. It’s the pilot who is ultimately responsible for the safe conduct of the flight. If a pilot is unable to handle adverse conditions, he is supposed to avoid them. If he ventures where he has no business being and kills himself or others, only he is to blame. Or so say many pilots.
The Appellate Court Reverses and Grants Judgment for Cirrus
The court of appeal reversed the verdict, but not for the reasons the piloting community urged. Rather, even assuming (1) that Cirrus didn’t train the pilot properly, and (2) that the lack of training contributed to the accident, the families still had no case against Cirrus. In Minnesota, there is no claim for injuries suffered as a result of "educational malpractice." And, according to the court, when you boil it all down, "educational malpractice" was exactly what plaintiffs were claiming.
If a negligence claim raises questions concerning the reasonableness of the educator’s conduct in providing educational services, then the claim is one of educational malpractice . . . [plaintiffs] ultimately challenge the quality of the transition training . . . But a determination of whether the transition training was ineffective because the instructor failed to provide a flight lesson on this topic would involve an inquiry into the nuances of the educational process, which is exactly the type of determination that the educational-malpractice bar is meant to avoid."
A dissenting judge reasoned that Cirrus should not be entitled to assert the "educational-malpractice bar" because plaintiffs did not claim that Cirrus’ instruction of the pilot on the use of the autopilot was improper. Rather, plaintiffs claimed that Cirrus failed to provide the instruction at all.
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