Pilot Counsel:

A repair goes to court

November 2, 2009

Imagine that as you are flying along, you hear a loud bang from the tail section of your aircraft. The aircraft goes into an uncontrollable nosedive. As you fight to right the aircraft, you are convinced that you are going to crash and die. The aircraft descends from 12,000 feet to 4,000 feet before you are able to get it under control. Then, thank heaven, you are able to control the crippled aircraft to a safe landing, without any physical injury or damage. But, as a result of this experience, you are really shook up, and it takes you some time to recover.

That is what happened to the pilot involved in this recent case. Although the nosedive and recovery are the most dramatic aspects of the case—happily ending without a crash or physical injury—the lawsuit that ensued makes for interesting drama.

The pilot sued the repair station, which had just completed maintenance and an annual inspection on the Cessna 421B that he was flying. He claimed that the repair station’s negligence caused the mechanical failure that caused the nosedive. He claimed that for days and weeks after the incident he “suffered from severe stress impairing his day-to-day functions and exhibited by extreme anxiety, adrenaline surges, and nightmares.” He sued for “negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

A mechanic employed by the repair station had removed and replaced the aircraft’s elevator trim tab actuator as part of the maintenance performed on the 421. An inspector, also employed by the repair station, certified that the mechanic had replaced the elevator trim actuator.

The pilot was flying the Cessna as part of his employment by the repair station. He was conducting a post-inspection flight test. Prior to departure, the pilot reviewed the maintenance logs and completed a preflight inspection. He checked the elevator trim tab and noted that the push rod bolt was in place. He did not identify or inspect the nut or cotter pin that joined the elevator trim actuator to the push rod of the elevator. After the preflight, along with a co-pilot and a passenger, he departed the airport. About eight to 10 minutes into the flight, at 12,000 feet, he heard a loud pop from the tail. The aircraft went into a nosedive at a 75- to an 85-degree angle. The aircraft rapidly lost altitude. The pilot declared an emergency. As the aircraft descended to 7,000 feet, both pilots pulled up on the yoke and returned the nose of the aircraft to level position, but still descending. At 4,000 feet, they achieved level pitch, although they did not have control of the aircraft’s altitude or speed. Both pilots believed that the aircraft would crash. However, they were finally able to get control of the aircraft. They landed safely at a nearby airport without any damage to the aircraft. Neither the pilot nor his passengers suffered any physical injuries.

The pilot found that the elevator trim tab had failed. The repair station, on further investigation, found that the bolt attaching the rod end to the trim tab actuator was missing. The mechanic who replaced the elevator trim tab actuator could not recall whether he had installed the cotter pin onto the nut that secures the bolt. The cotter pin helps to hold the nut onto the bolt, and keeps the nut from losing torque. The repair station also discovered two deficiencies in the aircraft maintenance paperwork. First, the elevator trim actuator was not listed on the removal and installation sheet. Second, the inspection checklist did not have an inspection stamp for the elevator trim system. The repair station fired both the mechanic and the inspector.

Despite the trauma, the pilot continued to work as a professional pilot for the repair station. He took a flight three days later. He even co-piloted the same Cessna 421 a few weeks later. He remained active. The pilot was a skydiver and continued to skydive after the incident. The pilot did not seek medical or psychological treatment for the emotional trauma he experienced. He was apparently concerned about his FAA medical certificate, minimizing his symptoms in order to pass the examination. Ultimately though, almost four years later, he did see a doctor who conducted a psychological evaluation. The doctor concluded that during the first three to five weeks following the incident, the pilot met the criteria for acute stress disorder, and that the condition improved over time. But the pilot’s symptoms, as serious as they were, were not sufficient to lead to a full diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The doctor did opine, however, that the pilot did experience emotional stress so severe that no reasonable person should be expected to endure it.

The pilot lost his lawsuit before a Federal District Court in Nebraska. According to the court, a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress requires a showing that the claimant suffered emotional distress so severe that “no reasonable person could have been expected to endure it,” and the “emotional anguish or mental harm must be medically diagnosable and must be of sufficient severity that it is medically significant.” The court found that while the pilot’s emotional distress may be medically diagnosable and significant, it was not so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. The court seemed to be influenced by the facts that the pilot continued to fly aircraft and skydive after the incident.

This case is notable because it combines a traumatic in-flight incident with an unusual lawsuit against a repair station, and a recognition of the legal standard that a pilot must meet to recover for the emotional distress caused by the incident.

John S. Yodice