$4,454,000: Contaminated Fuel Clogs Fuel Line Resulting In Crash Of Small Plane

CASE DESCRIPTION:  Plaintiff is injured in plane crash occurring shortly after take off.  The cause of the accident was found to be due to fuel starvation resulting from negligent maintenance of the plane.  One Defendant argued that the crash was actually due to pilot error.  Another Defendant attempted to distance itself from liability by claiming there was no agency relationship between Defendants.

RESULT:  $2,760,535.00 total verdict

This incident arose out of the crash of a Piper PA 32-260 airplane shortly after taking off at FullertonPlane Municipal Airport on the morning of September 23, 1988.  Defendant Wings Express Aviation, Inc. was the proprietor of a leased property for purposes of operating a Fixed Based Operation out of Fullerton Airport.  Wings Express sublet part of its space to former Defendant, Aviation Clubs of Fullerton, despite clear language in the lease agreement between Wings Express Aviation and the City of Fullerton that subtenants were not allowed.  Aviation Clubs of Fullerton operated a flight school and plane rental for Defendant Wings.  Wings Express Aviation provided fuel for the Aviation Clubs aircraft.

Plaintiff contended that the aircraft was negligently maintained and that Wings Express sold contaminated fuel from its facility causing the plane’s main fuel filter to clog, which in turn caused the plane to starve of fuel on takeoff and subsequently crash.  Plaintiff also contended that due to the lease arrangement between Aviation Clubs and Wings Express, that Aviation Clubs was acting as an agent of Wings Express.

At trial Plaintiff’s experts said the amount of contamination found in the airplane’s main fuel strainer assembly was clearly enough to cause fuel starvation.  The source of the contamination was combined rust from the strainer bowl itself, as well as contamination from the Wings Express fuel facility over time.  The pilot was not at fault for the crash.

With regard to damages Plaintiff’s experts testified that she was disabled permanently from being gainfully employed in the competitive labor market as a result of both her head injury, as well as her orthopedic injuries.  Orthopedically, Plaintiff suffered from chronic disabling pain.  Mentally/psychologically, Plaintiff suffered injuries making her unable to function as a paralegal as she previously had.  Prior to the incident, Plaintiff had completed law school (but had not yet passed the Bar exam), was Professor at UCI Medical School teaching medical-legal subject matter, had graduated from UCI undergraduate with a double major belonged to a variety of professional associations and had taught law school courses as well as medical-legal seminars.  Due to her injuries, she will be unable to work on a full-time basis, but could be a part-time psychologists assistant.

Defendant Wings Express Aviation contended that there was no fuel starvation and that the airplane crash occurred solely as a result of pilot error.  Wings Express claimed there was no agency relationship between itself and Aviation Clubs of Fullerton and also claimed that Aviation Clubs was an independent contractor.  Wings further contended that it was impossible for any contamination to have come from its fuel facility.

Defense experts testified that the crash occurred solely due to pilot error.  The pilot took an abnormally long take-off roll to nearly the end of the runway.  The airplane then attempted a zoom climb which caused it to lose power and be unable to successfully fly.  They also testified that the pilot had the propeller improperly set so that the plane could not develop sufficient power to complete take-off.

With regard to damages Defendant argued that although plaintiff suffered clear injury, the Plaintiff had gone back to work full-time only six months after the incident and had worked continuously thereafter (until going on disability in January of 1993) working in excess of 200 hours per month.  Defendant also contended that Plaintiff could continue functioning intellectually as a paralegal, or she could become a clinical psychologist (which she was training to become and was only several months from her Ph.D.).  Orthopedically, Defendant contended that Plaintiff could do sedentary work as she had been doing since six months after the incident and that she was not disabled.

TYPE OF CASE:  Aviation Crash

INJURIES:  On Plaintiff’s right eye she received Scleral rupture with viteous hemorrhage and retinal detachment, retinal tears, loss of intraocular lens, right globe fracture, loss of vision.

On her right knee she received traumatic arthrotomy, lacerations, pellergrini-steida disease, patellar capsule adhesions, ossification of collateral ligament.

On her pelvis she received multiple fractures.  Left superior and right inferior ramus fracture, comminuted and displaced right acetabulum fracture, left acetabulum fracture, right displaced malgaigne vertical sheer pelvis fracture, intra-pelvic and gluteal hematomas.

On her right hand she received multiple fractures, right proximal fourth metacarpal fracture, transverse comminuted right distal fifth metacarpal green stick fracture right wrist, right wrist phalanx fracture (proximal and intra-articular).

On her back she received a compression fracture at T-12, L-5 transverse process fracture, denervation of L-4 and L-5, L-1 lateral wedge fracture.

In her head area she received diffuse damage to right temporal, sub-cortical areas of the brain, cerebral concussion, cerebral edema, alteration in cerebra tissue perfusion.  Her teeth were sheared, chipped, cracked teeth and enamel.

In her abdominal area she received bilateral pulmonary contusions, left lower lobe atelectasis, superimposed aspiration pneumonia.

DATE & LOCATION OF INCIDENT:  On 9/23/88 approximately at 6:30 a.m. at the Fullerton Municipal Airport.

PLAINTIFF’S AGE:  31 years at the time of incident.

OCCUPATION:  Paralegal

Wylie A. Aitken & Richard A. Cohn
For Plaintiff – Jane Doe

James Fritz & Gerry Mouzis
For Defendant – Wings Express Aviation, Inc.