A Florida jury has found Cessna liable for the 1989 crash of a 185 in Florida and returned a record $480 million verdict against the Wichita-based manufacturer. Nobody died in the accident, but the three occupants of the 1966-model taildragger were injured in the crash and ensuing fire. The award consists of $400 million in punitive damages and $80 million in compensatory damages.
The lawsuit, filed by Philadelphia lawyer Arthur Wolk, contended that pilot James Cassoutt’s seat suddenly slid backward while he was attempting to land at Coastal Airport, a strip near Pensacola, Fla., causing him to lose control of the airplane.
Unfortunately for Cessna, the protections of the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) do not apply in this case because both the accident (in 1989) and the initiation of litigation (in 1991) preceded passage of the bill. It is ironic, too, that it was Cessna chairman Russ Meyer who led the industry assault on product-liability laws that resulted in passage of GARA.
Cessna lawyers argued that the seat did not slip and maintained that the locking mechanism was not defective. Noting that pilot Cassoutt had little experience with or instruction in the 185, they attributed the accident to pilot error.
Cessna said it “does not believe the jury’s verdict was consistent with or supported by the evidence at the trial, which included an admission by the pilot that the accident was caused by pilot error.” The company said it “intends to vigorously pursue every post-trial remedy available.”
An NTSB file on the accident obtained by AIN read as follows:
“A normal approach was made to Runway 36. The flaps were fully extended and full nose-up trim was applied, per the owner’s handbook. The wind was from the east at three to eight knots. Thick scrub trees bordered the east side of the runway. A three-point landing was planned, and touchdown occurred on the tailwheel and right mainwheel. The right wing came up as the left wheel touched, and the pilot initiated a balked landing. He and his wife, also a private pilot, said the nose pitched up abruptly, and a departure stall to the right was encountered. Both believed that the pilot’s seat slid rearward. Post-impact fire destroyed the seat rails. Examination of the wreckage showed that the front seats appeared to be in the same relative position.”