PLANE CRASH I PRODUCT LIABILITY I CASE STUDY: Flight Instrument Failure Results in Plane Crash

PLANE CRASH I PRODUCT LIABILITY I CASE STUDY: Flight Instrument Failure Results in Plane Crash  

July 8, 2021


Flight instruments are tools located within the airplane cockpit to provide pilots with information and data on the flight itself as well as the condition of the aircraft. Pilots rely on these tools and their accuracy for the safety of themselves and passengers. For this reason, when a flight instrument is defectively designed, fails to perform as represented and/or fails to do exactly that which it was warranted to do, then an aviation product liability claim arises.

PLANE CRASH CASE STUDY: Plane Crash Resulting From Flight Instrument Failure and Pilot Error

In 2008 Donald Hess and Virginia Hess flew a Cirrus SR 22 single-engine plane equipped with a Sandel Avionics, Inc. horizontal situation indicator (HSI). During the course of the flight the HSI failed to display the correct plane heading nor did it provide, Mr. Hess, the pilot in command, with any warnings of a mechanical failure with the flux detector. Consequently, the defectively designed HSI caused the pilot to rely on misinformation and a faulty flight instrument. As a result of the HSI flight instrument failure, the airplane crashed while landing at the Tallahassee International Airport in Florida. Both Donald and Virginia Hess died in the airplane crash. In response to the plane crash, the surviving Hess children filed a wrongful death claim against the flight instrument manufacturer, Sandel. The surviving children alleged multiple product liability causes of action including breach of warranty, design defect, negligence and strict liability. Sufficient evidence was presented at trial to confirm that the flight instrument failure caused and/or otherwise contributed to the plane crash. After a prolonged jury trial in San Diego Superior Court in Judge Richard L. Strauss department, a jury awarded a total of $2.2 million dollars in compensatory damages in favor of the surviving Hess children apportioning fault as follows: 65% for instrument flight manufacturer Sandel and 35% to Mr. Hess for pilot error.

LURA HESS BECHTEL and JOHANNA V. HESS, VS. Superior Court, San Diego County SANDEL AVIONICS, INC., (SDSC No. 37-2010-00104069-CU-PO-CTL); Bechtel v. Sandel Avionics, Inc., D063128 (Cal. Ct. App. Mar. 30, 2015)

Product Liability: Breach of Warranty; Design Defect

As discussed in a previous product liability article, when alleging a product liability claim there are typically four independent legal theories for recovery. The four product liability theories for recovery include: (1) negligence; (2) tortious misrepresentation; (3) breach of warranty; and (4) strict liability.

Strict Liability – Product Liability

In the discussed case the Sandel HSI flight instrument was improperly or otherwise defectively designed because it provided a flux detector failure warning in cases of electrical interruption, but not for mechanical problems. In the Hess case, there was a mechanical problem which the HSI did not register. The jury in the wrongful death action, found that the HSI flight instrument failure to provide warnings in cases of mechanical problems was an inherent design defect.

“To prove a strict product liability claim based on defective design, a plaintiff must show (1) that the device was unreasonably dangerous due to a defect or defective condition, (2) that the defect existed at the time the product was sold, and (3) that the defective condition was a cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.  Tingey v. Radionics, 193 Fed. Appx. 747

Breach of Warranties – Product Liability

The purpose of the HSI flight instrument is to provide a pilot with their heading. Here the instrument failed to provide the correct heading and simultaneously failed to notify or warn the pilot that the instrument was not properly operating.  The manufacturer of the flight instrument was in breach of an express warranty because it failed to do, exactly that which it was designed and marketed to do.  The flight instruments failure to provide the pilot in command with the proper heading was a breach of an express product warranty.

“(1) Express warranties by the seller are created as follows: (a) Any affirmation of fact or promise made by the seller to the buyer which relates to the goods and becomes part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the affirmation or promise. (b) Any description of the goods which is made part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the description. (c) Any sample or model which is made part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the whole of the goods shall conform to the sample or model. Cal. Com. Code § 2313. The retail purchase of a consumable product carries an implied warranty of fitness for its intended purpose by the manufacturer. The chief consideration is whether the manufacturer had reason to know the product was required for a particular purpose and that the buyer is relying on the manufacturer’s skill or judgment to select or furnish a suitable product. Cal. Com. Code § 2315.”

Negligence – Product Liability – Negligent Misrepresentation

When a manufacturer of a product conveys false or misleading information regarding the product to a consumer, and that consumer relies on such information to their detriment; then a product liability claim for tortious misrepresentation may arise. Here Sandel manufactured a horizontal situation indicator and represented that in the event of a flux detector failure the pilot would be given a warning. This representation failed to specify, and otherwise mislead the consumer to believe that in the event of any flux detector failure a warning would be issued. Unfortunately, the flight instrument only published a warning in the event of electrical interruption and not mechanical problems; this crucial distinction was not clearly disclosed and the manner in which the instrument was marketed lead consumers to believe that any failure would result in a warning.

“In the context of products liability, the basic elements of a negligence cause of action apply: (1) duty of care toward the plaintiff; (2) breach of that duty (or negligence); (3) proximate cause. The plaintiff also must establish that the product was defective or unreasonably dangerous.  Marzullo v. Crosman Corp., 289 F. Supp. 2d 1337

Aviation Law – Aviation Accidents

For more articles discussing general aviation law as well a plane crashes see the links below:

Product Liability

For more articles discussing product liability and Amazon product cases please see the links below:

There are two types of product liability claims.  The distinction between strict product liability claims versus negligent product liability claims are discussed in the articles linked below:

Additional articles discussing compensatory damages in personal injury actions, including negligence, premises liability and product liability cases are linked below:

Our other articles discussing chemical burn cases are linked below:

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