Manufacturer Wins in Lawsuit Stemming from 1999 Crash

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When a Beech Bonanza crashed into a New Jersey neighborhood in November 1999, killing the pilot and his wife and child, as well as one person on the ground, many lawsuits followed. This week, one of those suits was resolved in favor of S-Tec Corporation, based in Texas, manufacturer of the airplane's autopilot. The case was significant for general aviation, according to lawyer David Zeehandelaar, who led the defense team for S-Tec, because "the conventional wisdom is that it's tough for a manufacturer to win in a product liablity case." The NTSB had determined in July 2000 that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's failure to maintain aircraft control. Factors in the accident, the NTSB said, were failure of the horizontal situation indicator for undetermined reasons and the pilot's use of inappropriate medication. Zeehandelaar told AVweb on Wednesday that although the NTSB report was not admitted in court, his firm argued that the HSI that failed was not part of the S-Tec autopilot system, and also that the autopilot wasn't being used at the time of the crash. "We had radar data that showed the final turn was made at a rate of 6 degrees per second, which is not standard rate, and would require pilot input," Zeehandelaar said. The trial lasted for eight weeks and included testimony from approximately 30 expert witnesses on topics including piloting, aerodynamics, engineering, meteorology, aeromedical issues, and more.

The plaintiffs in the case were the estates of the three persons on the plane and the owner of one of the destroyed buildings. The city of Newark and about 20 residents of the neighborhood who were affected by the crash sued the pilot's estate and were awarded $2 million in a settlement in 2001. S-Tec also announced this week that it has been acquired by U.K. aerospace firm Cobham PLC for $38 million. The transaction should be completed by the end of this year, subject to regulatory approval, S-Tec said.