A Florida jury awarded a record $480 million to three people hurt in the crash of a Cessna 185 in 1989. The award ($80 million in compensatory, and $400 million in punitive damages) is the largest in aviation history, according to attorney Arthur Wolk, who represented the pilot and two passengers. Wolk said the accident occurred after the pilot's seat slipped backward during a balked landing. That caused the pilot to inadvertently pitch up the aircraft, which then stalled, crashed, and burned. Wolk said the seat-latching system was defective and that Cessna had failed to correct the defects. Cessna's attorneys denied that and blamed the accident on pilot error, noting that the pilot had little experience or instruction in flying the tailwheel aircraft. Cessna is considering an appeal.
"AOPA members are concerned about such an outsized award, because they know what it could do to a fragile industry," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "AOPA is a consumer organization, which, more than any other, represents pilots and aircraft owners. We always have to weigh the balance between a consumer's right to sue and the health of an industry."
Boyer noted that was the balance that was struck with the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), which put an 18-year limit on the ability to sue an aircraft manufacturer. That limit also applies to new components installed in an older aircraft. In this case, one of the seat rails was less than 18 years old at the time of the accident, which is why GARA didn't apply.