April 20, 2011
By Alton K. Marsh
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has overturned a decision by a lower court jury against Cirrus Aircraft in the case of a pilot and his passenger who died in marginal VFR weather in January 2003.
In 2009 a state court jury found that Cirrus and the University of North Dakota—which provided training under contract with Cirrus—were liable in the deaths of the pilot and passenger for not training the pilot to avoid accidental flight from VFR weather into instrument meteorological conditions. Aircraft transition training was offered by Cirrus Aircraft to the new Cirrus owner, although Cirrus was not required to do so, but pilot Gary Prokop also purchased additional training. A checkbox in the training syllabus beside a training segment concerning accidental VFR flight into poor meteorological conditions had not been checked off.
Prokop and his passenger, James Kosak, were killed near Hill City, Minn., in Prokop’s recently purchased Cirrus SR22. He received his pilot certificate in 2001 and had 225 hours of flight time, most of it in a Cessna 172. He was not instrument rated but had taken 60 hours of instrument flight instruction. Prokop took delivery of his SR22 on Dec. 9, 2002. On Jan. 18, 2003, he and his passenger planned to fly from Grand Rapids to St. Cloud, Minn., to attend their sons’ hockey tournament.
AOPA joined Cirrus Aircraft in fighting the suit through an amicus curiae (friend of the court) filing.
Prokop was told of low ceilings during an FAA weather briefing at 4:51 a.m. He called again at 5:41 a.m. and was informed of “marginal” conditions around Grand Rapids, with the sky partially obscured. Prokop said he “…was hoping to slide underneath it and then climb out,” according to court documents. The aircraft took off at 6:30 a.m. and struck the ground minutes later, killing the two men. Expert testimony at the trial suggested Prokop encountered “IMC-like” conditions, and entered an accelerated stall and crashed when Prokop tried to exit the conditions. The appellate court concluded Cirrus and North Dakota University were not liable “as a matter of law.”
“This was a tragic airplane accident. We were not surprised by the verdict of the appellate court. We had expected that the verdict would be overturned,” said Bill King, Cirrus Aircraft vice president of business administration
“The appellate court determined that as a matter of law, the decision of the jury could not stand. This case should not have gone this far,” King said
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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