No clear winner in Flexjet training lawsuit

 - February 26, 2008, 7:02 AM

Pilots often wonder what happens if they sign a contract to repay training costs when accepting a flying job that involves expensive simulator training but quit before the contract has expired. Conventional wisdom is that such contracts are not enforceable and the hiring company eventually drops the issue. That was not the case for Allen Miller, who accepted a job with Bombardier Aerospace’s Flexjet fractional operation in July 2000. Miller spent 17.5 months flying for Flexjet, leaving more than half a year before the 24-month period agreed to in his contract and owing the company thousands of dollars for training.

Miller didn’t want to pay, so Flexjet sued him. The reason he didn’t want to pay back his training costs, he told AIN, “is they promised us many things and didn’t deliver.”
Miller was hired with the promise that he would receive a type rating right away and regular six-month recurrent training. Miller believed what Flexjet told him, he said, because marketing material at the time assured shareowners that they would always fly with two type-rated pilots who received recurrent training every six months.

When he went to FlightSafety International in Tucson, Ariz., for the two-week initial training course in the Learjet 60, however, “the final step of the type-rating ride never happened. That was standard practice in the industry for them.”

After Miller left Flexjet, the company asked him to pay $4,750 toward his training costs. He refused, and in October 2005 Flexjet sued him. Miller countersued, according to Flexjet, “claiming common law fraud, fraudulent inducement, fraud by nondisclosure, negligent misrepresentation, consumer fraud and declaratory judgment.”

On February 8 the jury issued its verdict, and neither Miller nor Flexjet received any damages. Miller claims that he “won,”  mainly because Flexjet representatives admitted that they lied about the type-rating promises. During one of the pre-trial depositions of Flexjet chief pilot Rick Handschuch, Miller said, “he admitted that what was promised to owners was not delivered.”

Handschuch also, during the trial, claimed that the brochure telling owners that they would always fly with two type-rated pilots wasn’t in effect at the time Miller worked for the company, according to Miller. “On the stand, they tried to say, ‘We didn’t use it until after 2002,’” he said. However, Miller and his attorney, Rob Wiley, had received a copy of the brochure before the trial in the open-disclosure phase that had a time-stamp saying it expired in January 2002.

A Precedent-setting Case
The jury didn’t find that there was a contract, Wiley said. “It denied Bombardier’s contract claim.” While it didn’t award any damages to either party, the jury also found that Bombardier Flexjet engaged in deceptive trade practices against Miller, according to Wiley.

“Bombardier Flexjet is satisfied with and accepts the court’s judgment in this case,” a Flexjet spokeswoman told AIN in a written response to questions about the trial.
“Flexjet did not make any misrepresentations to Mr. Miller–intentionally, negligently or by omission. The jury verdict supports this.…All pilots employed by Bombardier Flexjet are fully trained and qualified to fly the aircraft that they operate. In fact, Flexjet’s pilots generally receive twice the annual training recommended by the FAA.

“Although the jury found that Mr. Miller failed to comply with his training contract, it also found that the parties did not agree on the interpretation of ‘training.’ The jury did, however, find in Flexjet’s favor on Mr. Miller’s counterclaims of fraud by nondisclosure, common law fraud and negligent misrepresentation. The jury rendered a contradictory verdict on the issue of consumer law fraud, answering questions on the issue in favor of each party, yet ultimately awarding Mr. Miller no damages. Mr. Miller’s claims of fraudulent inducement and declaratory judgment were dismissed.”

Wiley believes that this case sets a precedent for disputes between pilots and employers who insist that employees repay training costs if they leave before an agreed-on period of time has passed. “Now there is an actual case that got fought through to the bitter end,” he said. “This contract’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”