Dr. Ken Gottlieb’s Cessna 182 took off from Napa Airport with only Dr. Gottlieb aboard. As the Cessna climbed from the runway, it turned in the wrong direction. It collided with high terrain just north of the airport. Dr. Gottlieb was killed on impact. His body was ejected and the aircraft exploded and burned.
The family asked us to investigate. We learned that Gottlieb’s instructor had flown with Gottlieb a few days before the crash. The instructor found Gottlieb (pictured right) to be well-versed in the Napa departure procedure and otherwise meticulous in his flying. The instructor felt it unlikely that Gottlieb would become confused and turn in the wrong direction. As far as the instructor was concerned, whatever caused the crash was “out of Ken’s control.”
Faride Khalaf (pictured below) was the plane’s mechanic. We learned that Khalaf began working on general aviation aircraft only after he was fired from United Airlines. We uncovered evidence that Khalaf had performed maintenance on Gottlieb’s aircraft without properly recording the work in the aircraft’s logs. In fact, Khalaf performed undocumented repairs on the pilot’s seat just a few weeks before the crash.
We examined what little remained of the wreckage and found two things that were unusual. First, we saw evidence that, at the moment of impact, the pilot seat was in the full aft position. Second, the pilot’s seat belt was unbuckled.
Based on their forensic work, our experts testified that as Gottlieb climbed away from the runway, his seat suddenly and unexpectedly slid to its full aft position and jammed. Gottlieb’s hands and feet could not reach the aircraft’s controls and the aircraft flew off course, out of control. Gottlieb unbuckled his seat belt so that he could scoot on his knees up to the aircraft’s control wheel. But before Dr. Gottlieb could regain control of the aircraft, it crashed into the hillside.
The pilot seat slid back and jammed because Khalaf’s undocumented work was improperly performed. He charged the aircraft owners for new seat parts, but did not install them. Instead, he illegally jury-rigged the existing seat release mechanism. The faulty repair held up for a while, but failed just as Gottlieb took off, causing the seat to slide back and jam in place.
Making matters worse, we found emails from Khalaf on Gottlieb’s hard drive. Gottlieb had asked Khalaf to perform an annual inspection of the aircraft just days before the crash. Khalaf’s emails confirmed that he had in fact "finished with the annual" and that the plane was "good to go." Based on Khalaf’s confirmation that the plane was safe to fly, Gottlieb departed on his flight from Napa. But, in fact, Khalaf never inspected the plane at all. All he did was change the oil, to make it appear as though he had serviced the aircraft when in fact he had not. Had Khalaf performed the inspection, he might have learned that his previous improper repairs were about to fail.
Earlier this afternoon, the jury entered its verdict against Khalaf for $13,360,000. The verdict is believed to be a record amount in California for the death of someone over age 65.
Khalaf’s attorney quit the case one year before the trial was set to begin. Khalaf elected to represent himself during the 7 day trial. Adbi Anvari of Air West Aircraft Engines testified as Khalaf’s expert. Khalaf called Dr. John Kane to testify about medical issues that Khalaf contended afflicted the pilot, but the judge ruled the doctor to be unqualified and refused to allow him to take the stand.
Dr. Gottlieb was a prominent San Francisco forensic psychiatrist. He left his wife Gale, daughter Tamar, and son, Mike who is a lawyer and special assistant to President Obama.
Before trial, Gottlieb’s family offered to drop the suit entirely if Khalaf agreed to surrender his mechanic’s license. Khalaf refused. That means despite the verdict, Khalaf is still legally entitled to work on aircraft and return them to service.