July 20, 2012
By Jim Moore
The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled Cirrus Aircraft is not liable for failing to adequately train Gary Prokop, a private pilot killed in a 2003 night VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions.
Prokop, who had logged 248 hours and was not instrument-rated at the time of the crash, launched from Grand Rapids/Itasca County-Gordon Newstrom Field before sunrise on Jan. 18, 2003, with passenger James Kosak in a Cirrus SR22 that Prokop had recently purchased. Transition training was provided the previous December through a contractor under the purchase agreement between Prokop and Cirrus, based in Duluth, Minn. According to court documents and the NTSB report, the weather was marginal, with the weather station at Grand Rapids reporting few clouds at 300 feet agl, broken clouds at 1,400 feet agl, and overcast at 2,700 feet agl. Prokop lost control following spatial disorientation, investigators concluded, and impacted terrain 20 miles from Grand Rapids, killing both men.
A jury in 2009 awarded Kosak’s estate $7.4 million (part of which was to be paid by Prokop’s estate), and $12 million in damages to Prokop’s estate. The key issue in the case was a missing flight lesson covering the procedure for engaging the autopilot to safely exit IMC. While an instructor contracted by Cirrus to provide transition training for new owners testified that in-flight instruction on using the autopilot to escape IMC was given, there was no record of this in the course transcript, or Prokop’s logbook.
Justice Barry G. Anderson, writing the majority opinion, ruled Cirrus had fulfilled its obligation to train Prokop under the law.
“Cirrus provided Prokop with written instructions on the autopilot and recovery from VFR into IMC—the same information that was to be presented in Flight Lesson 4a—in a number of formats. The Pilot’s Operating Handbook and Autopilot Pilot’s Operating Handbook explained how to use the autopilot,” Anderson wrote. “The Cirrus SR22 Training Manual included diagrams about coping with inadvertent IMC. And Prokop watched PowerPoint slides about the autopilot and VFR into IMC during a ground lesson.”
While two justices dissented, the court found neither Cirrus nor the contracted training provider were liable.
“The duty to warn has never before required a supplier or manufacturer to provide training, only accurate and thorough instructions on the safe use of the product, as Cirrus has done here,” Anderson wrote.
AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.
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