Aircraft Pilot’s Seat Slips Causing Plane Crash

A civil trial stemming from a 2005 Martha’s Vineyard plane crash that left its pilot a paraplegic ended suddenly following a settlement, as reported in the Vineyard Gazette.

On June 23, 2005, Alec Naiman, 51, was piloting a Cessna 172-N aircraft as part of a Deaf Pilots Association event. Two passengers, 41-year-old Jeffrey Willoughby and his 13-year-old daughter Jessica, were also aboard. As Naiman was preparing to land, he saw a biplane preparing to take off on an intersecting runway. As he attempted a low-attitude, “go-around” maneuver to abort the landing, his seat allegedly slipped back abruptly, striking Jessica in the legs and causing him to lose control of the plane. It stalled and crashed on the grass at Katama airfield.

Naiman suffered a spinal fracture of T-12, resulting in paraplegia. He also suffered femur and fibula fractures to his right leg and a tibial plateau fracture to his left leg. He underwent spinal fusion surgery and implantation of stabilizing hardware for the leg fractures. He now uses a wheelchair and requires some daily living assistance. His past medical expenses totaled about $1.65 million, and his future medical expenses and life-care costs are estimated at about $4 million. An associate professor of sign language and dead culture, he was able to return to work, but he requires a reduced workload and will likely have to retire earlier than planned. His past-lost earnings totaled about $337,000, and his future lost earnings are estimated at $1 million.

Jeffrey and Jessica Willoughby both suffered lumbar spinal burst fractures and bilateral ankle fractures. Jeffrey required placement of stabilizing hardware in one ankle and incurred about $90,300 in medical expenses. Jessica underwent spinal decompression surgery, with rod placement, incurring about $207,900 in medical expenses. Both will incur additional unspecified future medical expenses.

Naiman and Jeffrey Willoughby, individually and on Jessica’s behalf, sued Cessna Aircraft Co., alleging that the pilot’s seat structure was defective. Specifically, the plaintiff’s contended that the seat was designed with stainless steel pins, which were supposed to lock into aluminum rails on the cockpit floor, but because the rails were worn, the pins slipped out while the aircraft was in flight. The plaintiffs contended that Cessna should have used stronger steel rails that would not have worn out and a different latching system involving horizontal latching pins.

The plaintiffs also sued various other defendants, including the airfield and its manager, the town where the airfield was located, the pilot of the biplane, the owners of both planes, and the pilots’ association. The Willoughby’s also sued Naiman, alleging that he was negligent in performing the emergency maneuver.

Before trial, Naiman and the Willoughbys settled for a confidential amount, the plaintiffs settled with the town for $10,000 and with the other defendants for confidential amounts, and the Willoughbys settled with Cessna for $1.7 million.

Although Naiman had amnesia and could not recall the specific flight sequence, a member of the flight club filmed the approach. The plaintiff’s experts testified that the nine-second video, together with the plane’s onboard GPS reading, showed that the plane had experienced an aerodynamic stall resulting from an inadvertent pull on the flight controls, causing a nose-up condition.

Cessna argued that the video, which showed the wings nearly perpendicular to the ground before the nose-up position, was merely evidence of an unskilled approach prior to the stall. The defendant also attempted to show through a kinematic study that Jessica’s statements about the seat slippage were in error based on where the defense contended she came to rest in the cabin. The plaintiffs countered with a witness who placed Jessica in the same position which she testified, trapped in the wreckage with jet fuel pouring over her.

The defense also argued that steel rails were not feasible because of their weight.

The parties settled for a confidential amount.

Contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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