Matthew Stoddard, the owner of The Stoddard Firm is a pilot.
If you’ve been injured in or lost a loved one to a plane crash, chances are very high that the plane involved falls into the broad category of “general aviation.”
Some definitions of general aviation only include recreational aircraft, like ultralights, gliders, and personal planes, along with aircraft for business transportation, like company jets. Others encompass all aircraft not dedicated to commercial airline or military use. This includes those performing other kinds of aerial work, such as crop dusters, medical and firefighting helicopters, and professional sight-seeing craft.
No matter which definition of general aviation you choose, however, the term refers to an activity much more dangerous than commercial air travel. This danger is often attributed to a lack of regulation and expertise among general aviation pilots. However, the most damaging lack of regulation may actually lie in the design and production of these private aircraft.
Below, we’ll discuss why timely civil suits for small aircraft accidents are so important, and some of what you can expect if you choose to pursue one. If you’d rather speak directly with a Georgia aviation lawyer about your case, just reach out by phone or chat at any time.
The General Aviation Industry Is Fraught with Defects and Coverups
That might sound dramatic, but the problem is real, massive, and deeply ingrained in the business.
One 2014 investigation conducted by USA Today estimated that there had been nearly 45,000 general aviation fatalities over the previous 50 years. During the same time period, commercial airline fatalities had become nearly nonexistent.
More to the point, the same investigation found that, while federal organizations nearly always blamed pilot error for the dangers and tragedies of private aviation, many of the crashes could actually be traced to product defects. Often, these were defects that the manufacturers had known about for years or decades and ignored, or actively lied about.
During the same period of time, USA today found that private aircraft manufacturers had paid survivors hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, but quietly, keeping these arrangements out of official federal records and the public eye.
In the eight years since this exposé was published, safety regulations for small aircraft design and production have not improved, and certainly have not become comparable with those for large passenger planes.
Every day, pilots and passengers of private aircraft continue to face needless and hidden dangers in the name of industry profits. Taking those profits back through civil litigation is often the best way for survivors not only to fund their personal recovery processes, but to effect change.
No Brand of Private Aircraft Can Be Assumed Safe
The safety issues with small aircraft design and manufacture aren’t a simple matter of poor quality knock-offs flooding the market. That would be bad enough — consumers deserve to be able to trust any product they buy to function as advertised, regardless of brand name or price — but in the case of aviation technology, the quality defects come largely from within the most expensive and trusted companies themselves.
Just last year, a Mooney M20M crashed in Minnesota, killing all three people on board. Witness reports, and even some video of the event, indicate that the plane essentially fell apart in mid-flight. One of the features that makes Mooney M20s so popular is their supposedly “indestructible” wing design, supported by a single continuous spar intended to withstand over 20 Gs of force. Yet the video of the crash shows the plane’s wings folding upward and allowing it to fall.
In 2017, the engine of a Diamond aircraft lost power, forcing a hard landing with serious injuries. The cause was found to be defective fuel injector components.
Cessna (or rather its parent company, Textron, which now also owns the Beechcraft brand), is of course one of the biggest names in general aviation. It’s also the name associated with one of the most egregious alleged cover-ups that surfaced in the USA Today investigation.
Cessna pilot seats have repeatedly slid out of place, causing pilots to lose their grip on the controls. Reports of this phenomenon date back to the 1960s. Then, in 1987, when the FAA was considering requiring Cessna owners to perform safety inspections on their seat rails, Cessna asked that the requirement be dropped, on the grounds that the owners would discover more parts in need of replacement than Cessna could provide.
This is far from the only bit of Cessna engineering that has been connected with deaths. In 1981, for example, an entire wing fell off of a Cessna in flight, leading to a fatal crash. The company lost the subsequent wrongful death case, and its appeal.
Piper planes have had repeated crashes associated with faulty carburetors, with one incident dating back to the 1970s, and another as recent as 2005 that helped spark the USA Today investigation. Some Piper models were also built with allegedly faulty bolts provided by Lycoming Engines, another company that seems, based on the findings of the investigation, to avoid performing necessary product recalls at all costs.
Even Cirrus, the brand that has for so long pursued a reputation as “the safe one,” has a real-world safety record surprisingly comparable to its peers. Better, possibly, depending on measurement criteria, but not by much.
In short, no matter how famous the manufacturer of an aircraft may be, and no matter how high-end the model, it never makes sense to assume pilot error without close examination of the evidence.
The NTSB Has Almost No Power to Help
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducts an investigation into every general aviation accident on American soil. As such, survivors of small plane crashes, and the families of the deceased, always end up spending the aftermath of the crash anticipating the NTSB’s eventual report. Many wonder if they should wait to read the NTSB’s findings before deciding whether to file a lawsuit against Cessna, Beechcraft, Piper, Mooney, Diamond, Cirrus, or another manufacturer of small aircraft and parts.
This is a natural reaction, but waiting for the NTSB report is a mistake for several reasons:
- The NTSB is a small organization that does not have its own experts in many crucial areas of aircraft engineering. Its investigations usually rely on the word of experts who work for the aircraft manufacturers and are motivated to shift blame away from them. As a result, the NTSB usually finds the cause of an accident to be pilot error, including in cases where independent investigations have found this to be untrue.
- NTSB reports are not binding. The role of the NTSB is mainly to make recommendations, which the FAA and the aircraft industry are free to ignore. It has responded to recent accidents by suggesting that private aircraft should be subject to safety regulations similar to those governing commercial aircraft, but that doesn’t mean this is going to happen. Similarly, in the unlikely event that the NTSB finds an aircraft manufacturer to be at fault for your accident, it can’t force that manufacturer to compensate you.
- NTSB investigations take years. Their official estimate is 12-24 months, though they acknowledge that it can take longer. By the time the NTSB releases its report on a crash, most of the original evidence is gone, and it’s much harder for an aviation lawyer to build a strong case than it would have been directly after the crash.
If you have any reason at all to believe that defective parts may have contributed to the private plane crash, helicopter crash, or other small aircraft accident that harmed your family, your best move is to have your own aviation lawyer perform an investigation as soon as possible.
Pilots and Mechanics Do Share Responsibility for Safe Flights
None of this is intended to discount the serious responsibility that comes with taking the controls of an aircraft. Pilot error is an overused diagnosis, but also a genuine phenomenon, especially among less experienced hobbyists and tour companies.
When pilots are careless in flight, or aircraft owners neglect the craft’s care, they endanger their passengers and everyone around them.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one in a private plane crash or other general aviation accident that you attribute to pilot error, rather than defective hardware, that’s just as much reason to seek out a good general aviation lawyer.
Another important party to look to, when determining liability after a small aircraft crash, is the aviation mechanic. It may be that the manufacturer really did create a quality aircraft, the owner followed all recommendations for maintaining it, and the pilot flew it with perfect skill, but the person who physically carried out the recommended maintenance made a mistake that no one else could have known about.
A good aviation lawyer should consider all of these possibilities while conducting a crash investigation, to find the best possible source of compensation for the victims.
General Aviation Lawsuits Present Unique Challenges, but the Stoddard Firm Knows How to Meet Them
Small plane crashes and other private aircraft accidents are usually complex events, both technologically and legally, so it’s important to make sure the aviation lawyer you choose is prepared to handle all aspects of your case.
The experts at The Stoddard Firm have experience in all relevant areas of law, including product liability, personal injury, wrongful death, and Matthew Stoddard is a pilot.
For example, one of the biggest obstacles to lawsuits against small aircraft companies is the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, commonly referred to as GARA. Essentially, defective parts and designs are such a big problem in general aviation, and have led to so many justified, successful lawsuits, that the industry requested federal protection from liability and, in large part, received it. Under GARA, crash victims are banned from suing over faulty parts that are more than 18 years old. Aircraft and their parts are generally intended to have a lifespan much longer than 18 years, so this excludes a lot of otherwise strong cases against manufacturers.
There are, however, exceptions to GARA, which is why the Stoddard Firm does not automatically write off general aviation cases involving older aircraft. In particular, GARA is not a license for aircraft manufacturers to cover up their mistakes until 18 years have passed, and then declare themselves beyond the reach of justice. If there’s evidence that a manufacturer has knowingly lied about an older defect, GARA immunity may not apply. As noted, these cover-up scenarios are not terribly uncommon.
Another popular defense that aircraft manufacturers use against litigation is the argument that, if the FAA approved a craft, there must have been nothing wrong with it that anyone could have anticipated, and therefore the manufacturer is blameless. Manufacturers would certainly like for this to be the case, but legal precedent says otherwise.
The 1970s ruling against Piper, involving the faulty carburetor, established that FAA approval is not an automatic shield against liability. A few years later, the ruling against Cessna, involving the detaching wing, clarified that aircraft defects are subject to strict liability, just like other defective product cases. This means that the plaintiff does not even need to prove that the defendant’s actions amounted to negligence.
We at The Stoddard Firm are committed to protecting general aviation crash victims’ rights under the law, holding irresponsible companies accountable, and getting our clients the compensation they deserve.
To discuss your case today with a qualified general aviation lawyer in Georgia, just call 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function for a free consultation.