Cirrus Decision: No Good Deed

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If you haven’t read this recent decision (PDF) on a lawsuit filed against Cirrus, it’s definitely worth a 15-minute scan. The court’s opinion makes several interesting points, but I found two particularly compelling. In a nutshell, Minnesota’s Court of Appeals reversed a 2009 judgment which required Cirrus to pay $14.5 million in damages to the families of two men killed in the 2003 crash of an SR22 near Hill City, Minnesota. The SR22 owner, Gary Prokop, was a 225-hour VFR-rated pilot who launched into marginal conditions early in the morning, lost control and crashed. The NTSB cited spatial disorientation as the probable cause. The exact weather at the crash site was unknown, but an ASOS station north of the area reported few at 300 feet, 1400-feet broken and 2700-feet overcast with 7 miles of visibility. The weather was better to the south.The suit against Cirrus argued that the company had a duty of care to train Prokop in methods to recover from inadvertent IMC encounters and that it failed to do so. Second, the original suit contended that Cirrus was negligent in “designing, testing, manufacturing, sale, distribution, maintenance, warnings, pilot training, and instructions given regarding the aircraft.” A jury agreed and the plaintiffs were awarded $14.5 million in damages. The case turned on whether the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation (UNDAF), which Cirrus had contracted to provide training, had properly instructed Prokop in the use of the airplane’s autopilot and whether it had trained him in recovery from VFR into IMC. A block on the training syllabus for this item was left unchecked, although Prokop’s instructor said he did provide the training. If the training was not provided, the block was supposed to be left unchecked.During the trial, Cirrus and UNDAF asked the court for a judgment as a matter of law, basically contending that the plaintiff’s claims were barred because of Minnesota’s educational malpractice doctrine and that the evidence of insufficient training was lacking. The trial court rejected these motions. The court later denied Cirrus and UNDAF’s request for a new trial.In its appeal, Cirrus again raised the issue of whether the company had a duty to provide training and proficiency. The plaintiff’s restated the argument that the seller of a potentially dangerous piece of equipment has an obligation under law to provide adequate instructions in the safe use of that product. Cirrus didn’t argue this point, but focused on the scope of the warnings required.It’s at this point that the appeals court inserted, as an aside, the first interesting point: “It is not apparent that Cirrus had a duty to warn Prokop,” it said. Under a doctrine called the sophisticated user defense, a company has no duty to warn the ultimate user if it has reason to believe that the user will realize the dangerous condition. This is the sort of common-sense reasoning that most pilots will resonate with. In other words, some hazards are so self-evident that no one other than the pilot should be held responsible.The appeals court found that the plaintiff’s claim that the duty to warn also included the requirement to train the end user to proficiency didn’t stand up. But this led to the second interesting point, which is found in the dissent by Judge Roger Klaphake. He argued that when Cirrus decided that it wouldn’t turn the airplane over to a buyer until that buyer had completed training and the fact that it contracted UNDAF to provide the training, it stepped up and assumed a duty of care which might not otherwise have been there. And having assumed that duty, the dissent argued, Cirrus was on the hook to “exercise reasonable care or he will be responsible for damages resulting from his failure to do so.”You can see where that reasoning goes. Cirrus might have been less liable if it hadn’t provided any training at all, a classic version of the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t doctrine and a stunning example of the tort environment in which manufacturers must live. The unintended consequence is that if a manufacturer makes a bonafide effort to improve the ownership experience–as Cirrus clearly has–it could actually be working counter to its own interests.In my view, the appeals court got this right. As do most pilots, I accept that airplanes are dangerous and that if mishandled or mistreated, they can kill you. Sometimes they can kill you even when that doesn’t happen. But I, as the user, assume responsibility to understand the risks and dangers and mitigate them as I see fit.On the other hand, anyone who buys a product has and deserves remedy under civil tort in cases of egregious negligence. If the manufacturer uses the wrong bolt grade and something comes apart or if it skips or fouls up a critical manufacturing or design process, it’s rightly on the hook for damages.Personally, I don’t see that here, although the dissenting judge did. And that’s what keeps defense lawyers up at night.