Small Airplanes That Crash & Catch Fire: Defective?


USA Today, in a very well-researched and written in-depth report,raises a significant question about the safety of small airplanes.

Despite evidence that small airplane fires have killed at least 600 people since 1993 (due to poorly designed fuel tank integrity and lack of available design safety changes) the FAA has not required manufacturers to make design safety changes because, the FAA concludes, it would be “too costly.” The FAA’s cost-benefit analysis placed the value of a human life at $1M. USA Today’s article criticizes this 1990 $1M valuation and notes that this value is lower than other government agencies use.

I have separately written on this issue in a blog post noting that a federal court recently valued the loss of a human life much higher: spouses of deceased victims received $8 million, parents of deceased victims received $5 million, and siblings of deceased victims received $2.5 million.

The FAA is way off in its valuation methodology as compared with other federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the value of a life at $9.1 million. The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year. The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations. See NEW YORK TIMES, As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret (Feb. 16, 2011).Available here.

The issue of product defect under a flawed cost-benfits analysis (where safety changes are not done because an unreasonably low number for the value of a human life was used) recalls the classic fuel tank defect case Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company. In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 119 Cal. App. 3d 757 (4th Dist. 1981) the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District reviewed Ford’s conduct and upheld compensatory damages of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford. Of the two plaintiffs, one was killed in the collision that caused her Pinto to explode, and her passenger, 13-year old Richard Grimshaw, was badly burned and scarred for life. For $4-$8 Ford could have made design changes and a safe fuel tank system. At trial expert testimony was allowed that Ford did in fact engage in cost-benefit analyses which balanced life and limb against corporate savings and profits.

Simply because a manufacturer makes a product that meets minimum federal or state regulations does not preclude a finding of recklessness and the award of punitive damages when there is evidence that the manufacturer knew the product was unduly unsafe and dangerous. In California, the California Court of Appeals expressly rejected this argument in a case against Ford Motor Company where Ford argued punitives could not be awarded where there was compliance with a federal vehicle safety standard. Ford appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the case on other grounds so the issue remains arguably open at the federal level. Ford Motor Company, et al., v. Benetta Buell-Wilson, et al., Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One Case Nos.:(D045154, D045579) Decision Date: July 19, 2006; U.S. Supreme Court docket No. 06-1068.

USA Today’s exposé makes a strong case that small plane manufacturers are doing the same thing that Ford did in Grimshaw; place profit about human safety and lives. If you need legal advice from a Tennessee product liability attorney with the experience to handle defective small airplane fire crash cases, click here to contact us for a confidential case review.