Thursday, June 09, 2005

Jury concluded Learjet not responsible for crash

Perhaps you'll recall an incident in 1999 when golfer Payne Smith was killed in an unusual plane crash. The Learjet he was riding in suffered a cabin decompression rendering everyone aboard unconscious. The plane was on autopilot, however, and flew on. Attempts to contact the crew went unanswered and another aircraft was vectored to intercept for a look. In the end, the plane basically ran out of fuel and crashed. The NTSB determined that a cracked adapter pulled a valve in the pressurization system ot of position and this is what cause the decompression. It was a very sad tale and a tragic loss. After hearing about the NTSB findings I lost track of the story, so I didn't know that Payne's widow and children had sued Learjet.

I've said before that it seems there are no such things as accidents any more. If something happens, someone had to be at fault. Thus, this wasn't a tragic mechanical failure, it was a negligent action on the part of the plane's manufacturer. That was the contention of the lawsuit but the jury didn't see it that way:

:::::::: ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Learjet should not be held responsible for the 1999 plane accident that killed golfer Payne Stewart, jurors said Wednesday.

The six-woman jury deliberated for more than six hours after listening to more than a month of testimony.

Stewart won the U.S. Open, his third major victory, just months before his death.

His widow, Tracey, and their two children sued Learjet, claiming a cracked adapter caused an outflow valve to pull away from the plane's frame, resulting in a decompression and the escape of cabin air as the plane climbed to its flight altitude after leaving Orlando on Oct. 25, 1999. All communication with the plane was lost soon afterward and it flew on for hours, all aboard presumably unconscious, until it crashed in South Dakota.

Joining the lawsuit was the family of Robert Fraley, Stewart's agent, who also was on the flight.

The lawsuit had asked for $200 million.

In their verdict, jurors found that the plane's manufacture had no impact on the deaths of Stewart and Fraley, and that there was no negligence in the design or manufacture of the plane.

In spite of the NTSB's finding that a physical crack in a part - something that could have happened as a result of a mechanic turning a nut too hard or any number of environmental reasons - a lawsuit was filed against Learjet. Why them and not the mechanic who maintained the plane? Because Learjet's got millions and a mechanic likely does not. The lawyer for the family and agent says it was never about the money, only about responsibility. They wanted to make air travel safer. Then why ask for $200 million? It's lawsuits like this that have driven the general aviation sector nearly underground and I'm glad that a jury saw it that way.