Report Highlights the Widespread Danger Associated With Defective Private Planes and Helicopters
An investigative expose published by the USA Today provides a chilling picture regarding the safety of private planes and helicopters. Approximately 45,000 people have perished in fatal crashes involving these forms of aviation vehicles during the last five years. To put this in context, the number of fatalities in these crashes is nine times higher than the number of deaths resulting from commercial airline crashes. While federal investigators concluded that pilot error was the cause of 86 percent of these crashes, the USA Today investigation concluded that many of these crashes actually were caused by dangerous designs and defective components.
The risk posed to occupants of private airplanes and helicopters (collectively referred to as "general aviation") dwarfs the risk associated with commercial airline travel. During 2013, there were a total of 1,199 general aviation crashes, amounting to three per day. These crashes caused 347 deaths and injuries to another 571 people. By contrast, a U.S. domestic passenger flight has not crashed since Feb, 12, 2009.
Since 1994, the investigation identified over 80 lawsuits involving 215 general aviation deaths that resulted in the manufacturer paying a settlement or verdict of a million dollars or more. This includes the following:
• $70 million verdict against General Electric for a helicopter crash that killed nine people
• $48 million verdict against Doncasters, a parts manufacturer
• $26 million against Lycoming for a crash involving three fatalities
The tragic death of 8-year-old Caryn Stewart provides a tragic example of a crash that federal investigators originally ruled was a caused by pilot error which later turned out to be caused by a defective carburetor. Caryn was a passenger in her uncle's Piper Cherokee, which was piloted by her cousin. During takeoff, the plane elevated briefly than plunged to the ground and exploded in a ball of flame. Caryn suffered extensive burn injuries that left scars on much of her face and body. Three family members died in the crash.
The plane manufacturers were directly involved in the federal investigation that initially ruled that the pilot lost control of the small private plane. Documents from the manufacturer along with government records indicated a different cause behind the fatal plane crash. The plane had a faulty carburetor that the plane manufacturer later urged owners to remove because it was triggering engine failure.
In a lawsuit brought by Caryn's uncle and father, the companies that made the carburetor and engine blamed the pilot for the crash. The judge denied both companies' request to have the case dismissed and found that the company that manufactured the carburetor had received more than 100 warranty claims regarding the unit. The judge also emphasized that the engine maker continued to use the carburetor despite the fact it "knew of ongoing problems" with the component "and of numerous plane crashes resulting from such problems." The two manufacturers eventually settled the case for $19 million.
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