Dangerous and Defective Products: Airplane Crash Litigation

Piper airplanes have been involved in a number of fatal crashes resulting in wrongful death lawsuits across the country. For example, a man died in Washington State after his plane crashed near Felts Field in May 2015. His wife sued Piper, alleging that the airplane (a Piper PA-46 350P) was negligently designed and flawed. Last week on New Year’s Eve, four people from Iowa were killed when another single-engine Piper aircraft crashed in Illinois. The family of four was on its way to Nashville to celebrate the new year. Airplane crashes like these are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.   

The FAA has issued a number of Airworthiness Directives warning Piper Aircraft, Inc. of dangers associated with various unsafe defects on their airplanes. FAA Airworthiness Directives (ADs) are legally enforceable regulations issued to correct unsafe conditions on airplanes. In October, 2015, the FAA warned Piper that cracks found in the right wing posed a hazard and required immediate inspection and repair. There have been dozens more ADs, not just for Piper but also for other manufacturers ranging from Airbus to Boeing.

Suing an airplane manufacturer like Piper in a defective products or wrongful death case is a complex process, and often the battle begins with determining not just in what state but even in what county within the state the lawsuit should be filed, and where the trial should be conducted. It seems as though lawyers can and often do argue about everything.  At some level, many lawyers must consider arguing to be their raison d’être.

Part of my practice requires me daily to read new cases and orders issued in both Federal and State courts across the country, in an effort to try to keep up to date on the evolving interpretations and applications of our laws.  A subtle, nuanced opinion can exert a seismic effect on our personal injury clients’ cases, often meaning literally the difference between winning and losing.

For example, today an opinion was issued from Miami’s Third District Court of Appeal that dealt with a wrongful death and defective products case arising from an airplane crash that sadly killed an entire family of three, two other passengers, and their pilot. The case was filed in State court in Miami-Dade County, against Piper Aircraft, Inc., the manufacturer of the airplane, claiming the airplane, a Piper Seneca II, was negligently and defectively designed, causing the crash.  Piper and its lawyers responded by asking the court to move the case from Miami-Dade County, Florida, to Vero Beach, Indian River County, Florida, where Piper operates the manufacturing plant where this plane was built in 1978.

The doomed flight left from Bedford, Massachusetts, and crashed en route to Rome, New York.  The family all lived in New York. Like most sophisticated corporations, Piper is a Delaware corporation, but manufactures its airplanes in Vero Beach; it then later sold and shipped this aircraft to an aviation company in Washington. The plane had never been to Miami-Dade County.

VENUE SELECTION IN FLORIDA

Where a particular lawsuit can be filed is governed by a number of rules and laws, depending on the kind of lawsuit, where the parties are from, and the court where the case was initially filed. In Florida, Section 47.122, Florida Statutes (2015), dictates the factors that a judge must consider when a defendant, in this case Piper, seeks to have a case that has been filed in one court moved to another location, a process called transferring venue:

(1) the convenience of the parties;

(2) the convenience of the witnesses; and

(3) in the interest of justice.

The trial court judge may transfer venue if the court finds that any of these factors weigh in favor of the proposed alternate forum. Once a trial judge orders that a case be transferred or remain in the plaintiff’s chosen jurisdiction and the dissatisfied party appeals, the trial judge’s order can be reversed or overturned only when there is evidence showing that the judge abused his discretion in the ruling. This appellate standard, “abuse of discretion,” which applies to a number of legal issues, not just venue selection, is exceedingly hard to show and therefore very difficult to win on appeal. In other words, if there is simply a “reasonable basis in the record to support the trial court’s decision,” an appellate court must affirm. This applies to most kinds of personal injury cases, ranging from a slip and fall at a Publix to a car accident in Miami.

In this case, the appellate court found that the trial court’s transfer of the case from Miami-Dade County to Indian River County, Florida, was reasonable since the plane was manufactured in Vero Beach, Florida, which is located in Indian River County; because Piper, Inc. is, and has always been, located in Vero Beach; none of the parties, or witnesses are or were residents of Miami-Dade County; the crash happened in New York; and, essentially, Miami-Dade County has no connection whatsoever with this lawsuit.  The court went on to suggest that it might have been an abuse of discretion not to have moved the case.

I can certainly understand why the plaintiffs would have preferred to have the case tried in Miami, with its potentially cosmopolitan and diverse jury panel, in contrast to Indian River County, which has a population of fewer than 150,000 people and where, most importantly, the largest private employer is Piper Aircraft. Our airplane crash lawyers express our condolences to the surviving members of this family and the others lost in this crash, along with our wishes that they may obtain speedy and complete justice.

Whether your injury was caused by a careless driver or by a dangerously designed medical device or product, it is important to consult with experienced personal injury attorneys to help you navigate the complex legal procedures of bringing your claim. Our office fights to protect the legal rights of those injured by careless corporations, insurance companies, and cruise lines when they put their profits ahead of people’s lives.

If you are involved in an accident, we are ready to help you obtain money for your lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering. Call our office today–we offer free initial consultations and work strictly on a contingency basis, which means we do not get paid unless we are able to win your case. That means we take only cases we believe in–where there exists a legitimate wrong and a serious change in the quality of someone’s life.  

Every one of our client’s cases is personal to us, and we are ready to help you. Call today at 305-441-0440, or toll-free at 1-866-597-4529, or reach us by email at newcase@aronfeld.com or SKYPE.

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 ¹Keeping up with the state of the law–and every iteration–would be nearly impossible, but a disciplined attempt to spend some time every day reading the newest cases is essential to being an effective trial lawyer.

²HEATHER THEOBALD, etc., et al., Appellants, vs. PIPER AIRCRAFT, INC., et al., Appellees. 3rd District. Case No. 3D16-1504. L.T. Case No. 15-9438. Opinion filed December 21, 2016.

³The complaint alleged that Piper Aircraft Corporation had installed a stabilator with a flawed design, which it knew could cause the plane to break up and disintegrate in-flight. This was not the first time Piper had been sued for this issue.

4 The plaintiff also sued One S-TEC Way, a Texas company that made some of the parts used on this plane.  

5 Cruise ship passenger accident claims are unique in that the cruise lines insert venue selection clauses in their passenger tickets requiring that cases be filed in Federal Court–mostly in Miami, regardless of where the injured plaintiff is from or where the accident may have occurred.

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