Aerobatic hall of fame pilot Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base. He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut. Something went wrong. Eddie’s Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at show center. His Stearman caught fire. Eddie couldn’t get out. The crowd watched, prayed, and waited for fire trucks to arrive. Some bystanders wanted to rush to the plane to help, but the announcer warned everyone to stay back and “let the firefighters do their job.”
ICON Aircraft hired away from Ford Motor Company a superstar PhD to lead its engineering department. When Cagri Sever showed up at ICON’s facility in Vacaville, the first thing ICON did was send him off on a “demonstration” flight with the company’s chief pilot, Jon Karkow. Karkow flew to
Lake Berryessa, a virtual stone’s throw from the ICON factory. Once there, Karkow couldn’t resist the urge to engage is some low level maneuvering over the water. Minutes after takeoff, Karkow crashed onto the shore, leaving both of them dead.
A courageous client speaks to Stephen Stock about the risks to the flying public.
Here’s the pre-emption argument:
Our plane’s design was approved by the FAA. If plaintiffs think there is something wrong with it, they should take it up with the FAA. But they should leave us alone.”
Manufacturers make this argument in just about every aviation case we bring. We respond that that the FAA regulations are the bare minima only, and weren’t intended to be the last word on whether an aircraft’s design is safe. Besides, the FAA is stretched so thin that it allows many manufacturers to essentially self-certify their design work. So in many cases the FAA stamp of approval was placed on the aircraft by someone who was actually on the manufacturer’s payroll. How safe is that?
Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive involved the crash of a 1998 Cessna 172. The plaintiffs alleged the crash was caused by a defective carburetur. The manufacturers asked the court to dismiss the case against them because the aircraft engine’s design was FAA-approved.
The court noted the controversy concerning the FAA’s practice of allowing manufacturers to self-certify, but held it wasn’t really relevant. Instead, the court agreed with plaintiffs that Congress simply didn’t intend the FAA regulations to be the last word on safety. That means that the regulations did not pre-empt state law, and the plaintiffs’ tort case against the manufacturers of the plane and the plane’s engine components could proceed.
The manufacturers argued that if plaintiffs were allowed to sue over products even though they comply with all FAA regulations, it would end up killing the aviation industry. The court had an answer for that:
On the contrary, [our holding] simply maintains the status quo that has existed since the inception of the aviation industry, preserving state tort remedies for people injured or killed in plane crashes caused by manufacturing and design defects.”
No question that aviation manufacturers will continue to make the preemption argument going forward, as they are always looking for that sympathetic ear. They just didn’t find one in the Third Circuit.
Injured passengers have filed suit against Spirit Airlines in connection with last month’s drunken melee on board a flight from Baltimore to LAX. The plaintiffs, represented by Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, seek to hold Spirit Airlines responsible for the conduct of the unruly passengers who injured them because Spirit Airlines allegedly fueled the flap with copious amounts of alcohol and failed to protect them from injury.
Claims against ground-based barkeepers and others who over serve customers are permitted in some states. But such suits don’t work when the defendant is an airline. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 grants an airline immunity from any liability arising from the airline’s choices in connection with “routes, rates, or service.” “Service” includes drink service. That means that when a drunken passenger injures his fellow traveler, the airline who served the offending passenger cannot be held liable. Gee v. Southwest Airlines.
This case isn’t going anywhere.
Experimental amateur-built aircraft crash more often than those assembled in a factory. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that, when compared to factory-built aircraft used in similar flight operations, amateur-built aircraft crash three times as often. Our own National Transportation Safety Board studied the amateur-built accident rates and made similar findings.
One might expect that, because they are built by an amateur, an experimental aircraft’s wings would tend to fall off more often than those of a factory-built aircraft. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Most experimental aircraft are structurally sound. Rather, according to NTSB data, the biggest issue is engine failure, often because of fuel flow problems.
And that’s exactly what brought down an experimental Van’s RV-10 aircraft in Toledo, Oregon, in June 2014. The aircraft lost power on takeoff, killing the pilot and his 4 year-old passenger. The NTSB concluded the engine failed because it wasn’t getting fuel. Investigators found broken fragments of sealant in the aircraft’s fuel line where, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be.
There are no statistics on how often the companies who sell kits get sued, but it’s hardly ever. After all, who is responsible for the defect in the aircraft’s manufacture or design that caused the crash? The company who sold the kit? Or the guy who spent several years putting the kit together in his garage? While some builders follow the kit maker’s directions to the letter, many do not, taking it upon themselves to modify at least some portion of the aircraft. That’s allowed by regulations and seems to be part of the fun of building the aircraft. For example, John Denver was killed years ago when the amateur-built aircraft he was piloting crashed off the California coast. The amateur who put the kit together thought he had a better way of doing it and installed the aircraft fuel valve in a place other than as recommended by the kit’s seller. The NTSB ultimately determined that it was that modification that led to the crash.
But even if the victim’s lawyer proves it was the kit maker, and not the builder, who was responsible for the defect, few kit makers carry insurance. That means a verdict against the aircraft company may be impossible to collect.
Despite the hurdles, the family of the girl killed in the Toledo crash has filed suit against Van’s Aircraft Inc., blaming it for exploiting FAA “loopholes” that allow it to sell aircraft that have not been properly tested and are thus unproven and unsafe. The suit goes on to allege that
Not only are Van’s aircraft designs untested and unsafe, but its assembly instructions are also inadequate and unsafe.
The suit goes on to allege that the fuel flow transducer that Van’s supplied with the kit was dangerous because it was not capable of dealing with a blockage, as would be required of on a fuel flow transducer mounted on a factory-built aircraft.
We can expect Van’s to argue that their experimental aircraft are just that – experimental. They are not intended to have all the safety features included with factory-built aircraft. That is why the word “experimental” is required by law to be prominently displayed inside each one.
Nicholas Baer was body boarding in Carlsbad on the Fourth of July when a plane towing a banner crash-landed on the beach and injured him. The twelve-year-old is now suing the pilot and the company that owns the Piper that struck him. The boy’s attorney argues that even though the Piper’s engine failed, the pilot shouldn’t have landed on the beach where someone could be injured. The pilot should have instead attempted to land in the water. Though the pilot might not have fared as well had he landed in the surf, there would certainly have been less chance of injuring beachgoers.
Seems that the boy’s attorney has a point. And this particular scenario – beachgoers being injured or even killed when a pilot attempts to put his plane down on the beach – is not entirely unheard of. It happened in Florida a year ago. The pilot in that case tried to land his Piper Cherokee, and in the process hit and killed a man and a daughter who were walking on the beach. And it happened in 2010 when a Lancair pilot landed on a beach in Hilton Head after his plane lost its propeller. In that case it was a lone jogger who was killed.
In each of the cases, the victims were innocents. The risk of being injured by an airplane was certainly the furthest thing from their mind.
The Andreini family gave their first interview since Eddie’s death to KTVU’s John Sasaki. John asks us about the lawsuit we filed today against the United States Air Force.
Eddie Andreini’s plane slid to a stop at show center and caught fire. Eddie was trapped inside. The crowd watched, prayed, and waited for fire trucks to arrive. Some bystanders wanted to rush to the plane to help Eddie get out, but the announcer warned everyone to stay back and "let the firefighters do their job."
But the firefighters didn’t do their job. By the time the trucks showed up, almost 5 minutes had passed and it was too late. Eddie survived the impact unharmed, but died of burn injuries.
The Travis Air Force base fire trucks were supposed to be positioned at show center so that, in case of a crash, they would have immediate access to the runway. Where were they? Those who were at last year’s "Thunder Over Solano" air show want to know and so does Eddie’s family. But within hours of Eddie’s death the Air Force closed ranks. Since then, it has simply refused to explain itself to anybody.
- The Air Force declined to answer any questions at all from the family in the days and weeks following the accident.
- Though it had by law only 20 days to respond to our formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Air Force ignored that deadline altogether and gave us nothing.
- The Air Force had six months to respond to the family’s official claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act. That deadline has also long passed. The Air Force hasn’t offered so much as a phone call in response.
So what is the Air Force hiding?
It looks as though there are three three things the Air Force doesn’t want to talk about.
First, Travis didn’t place its trucks at show center as it was supposed to. Instead, it parked them more than a mile away. 1.3 miles away, to be exact.
Second, Travis brass told the firefighters that, in responding to any fire, they could drive their trucks down the taxiways no faster than 25 miles per hour. That speed limit applied to all the fire trucks, including the Air Force’s so-called "Rapid Intervention Vehicle," designed and built to get to the scene at top speed and start applying foam before the big trucks arrive.
Third, the Travis firemen may not have been in their station and ready to respond like they were supposed to be. Rather, it looks as though they may have been out across the field taking pictures of airplanes parked on the grass.
Today we filed suit against the Air Force on behalf of Eddie’s family. The Air Force has 60 days to respond.
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.