Aviation Law :: Our Approach
Our approach to aviation litigation typically involves developing a compelling theory of probable cause and then supporting that theory with hard evidence before a jury. This evidence includes, but is not limited to, conducting tests of actual components, performing wind tunnel and flight tests on aircraft, and creating mock-ups, computer animations, and graphic displays, thus convincing a jury that the plaintiff should recover.
The following example broadly outlines a case that ultimately resulted in the largest ever aviation verdict for plaintiffs – $480 million, $400 of which was punitive damages.
Three pilots were in a single-engine Cessna practicing landings and takeoffs at a small airport in Florida. As the pilot advanced the throttle for takeoff, his seat suddenly shot rearward, causing his grasp to reflexively pull the control yoke back with him. This caused the elevators of the aircraft to move full nose up, the aircraft pitched up, aerodynamically stalled and fell nose down into a wooded area, bursting into flames. The pilot jumped out, reaching back in through the flames to rescue the pilot in the rear seat, who had suffered a spinal cord injury and couldn't move. He also freed the right front seat pilot, who was on fire and trapped.
The injuries to the three pilots were extensive. The first pilot received third degree burns, the rear seat pilot suffered permanent loss of bowel and bladder control, and the right seat pilot suffered third and fourth degree burns over much of her body.
The accident was caused by a seat slip due to the defective design of the seat latch. The manufacturer was aware of the problem for some 40 years before this accident occurred, and the same failure had resulted in many accidents and near accidents before this one. The defect had already cased deaths and injuries, but each time the manufacturer blamed the pilots for failing to lock their seats in place, even though it knew that the design of the latch allowed the pin to disengage even when properly locked.
The Wolk Law Firm proved through metallurgical analysis that witness marks on the seat latch and rail showed unmistakable evidence that the seat had been properly latched. We also demonstrated how the seat becomes unlatched, and how once unlatched the seat will rocket rearward, surprising even the most experienced pilot.
The evidence also showed that in a trial some 20 years before, Arthur Alan Wolk had shown this same manufacturer the same failure mode and even suggested a fix to prevent other injuries and deaths. In that earlier case, the jury awarded the then largest punitive award in aviation litigation history. But still, the manufacturer did nothing to fix the aircraft already in service.
The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs for $80 million compensatory damages and $400 million in punitive damages, the largest aviation verdict of all time.
Once again, The Wolk Law Firm recommended several options for fixing the latching defect, any of which would prevent a reoccurrence. It is Arthur Alan Wolk’s pledge to not only criticize bad design, but to offer recommendations for improvement, in hopes of preventing future accidents from occurring.