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Small Cessna Medical Flight Crashes in Lake Michigan

Personal Injury Blog Post
July 23, 2010

On Friday, July 23, 2010, around 10 a.m., a Cessna airplane crashed off the coast of Ludington, Michigan. The crash was reported by Ludington Air Control and was apparently witnessed by a fishing boat miles off the coast. Indications are that the flight developed problems maybe a third of the way into the flight when the plane doubled back over Lake Michigan and then had a steep decline in altitude and eventually crashed. The private flight left Alma, Michigan and was headed for Rochester, Minnesota, ostensibly with passengers onboard traveling for medical reasons.

Carol Freed, apparently owned the plane and her husband may have been rescued.

The 1971 Cessna 206 is a fixed wing single engine with seating capacity for 6 people. Its weight can be up to 12,4999 pounds and it can reach speeds of 132 mph. Reciprocating N-Number is 82531; Serial Number of U-206-01734. It was registered to Freed Construction, P.O. Box 92, Alma, MI 48801.

Medical flights have been the source of investigation and concern lately, with many medical flights crashing in recent years.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and local authorities will begin. 

It appears initially that the weather was not a factor and that the focus will inevitably be on pilot error, mechanical failure, or a combination of such airworthiness factors.

In Michigan, there are statutory laws that apply, among other laws, regarding legal responsibility for plane crashes:

259.180a Liability for injury occasioned by negligent operation of aircraft, Sec. 180a.

  1. Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2), the owner or operator or the person or organization responsible for the maintenance or use of an aircraft shall be liable for any injury occasioned by the negligent operation of the aircraft, whether the negligence consists of a violation of statute, or in the failure to observe ordinary care in the operation of the aircraft, as the rules of the common law require.
  2. The owner of an aircraft shall not be liable for an injury occasioned by the negligent operation of the aircraft, as described in subsection (1), unless the aircraft was being operated with the owner’s express or implied consent or knowledge at the time the injury occurred.
  3. “Person or organization responsible for the maintenance or use of an aircraft” does not include a mechanic who is an independent contractor and who has performed work on or furnished materials, supplies, or equipment for an aircraft, or any employee of the mechanic.

Attorneys and lawyers familiar with complex litigation can be of significant assistance in helping individuals and families who are injured or killed in airplane crash cases. Of particular significance is the preservation of evidence and investigation of witnesses so as to preserve critical evidence and have expert analysis of potential causes.

These types of cases can involve many types of legal issues that require lawyers to evaluate anything and everything potentially involved with the airplane, the pilots, and the crash. This would include maintenance work done or not done on the plane to potential product liability claims against the manufacturer of the plane or a component part.

For example, one major issue that may arise with a claim against the plane manufacturer is called “GARA.” The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (GARA) immunized General Aviation aircraft manufacturers against lawsuits for defects in products older than 18 years. It is a very protective law for manufacturers and thus forces more scrutiny on owners of the aircraft, maintenance businesses and pilots after bad crashes where there is a mechanical malfunction. Moreover, manufacturers may not have the immunity they expected because some courts have interpreted GARA as not completely providing protection from suit.

For example, in Caldwell v. Edstrom Helicopter Corporation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an aircraft’s flight manual is a part of the aircraft. Any post-sale revisions or deletions to an aircraft manual may restart the 18-year liability exposure clock each time they are made. In June 2003, a California State Court of Appeals held that a manufacturer could be responsible for willfully misrepresenting the safety of its helicopter by failing to notify the FAA of five military accidents involving the same part as the civilian version of that helicopter.

GARA is thus not an automatic bar against a lawsuit of a plane manufacturer. Furthermore, a lawyer investigating and pursuing these types of claims have to explain to the family the complex interplay among various laws, ranging from state and federal law issues, choice of law issues, wrongful death laws and who can bring claims and for what damages, to beginning the stressful probate law process.

Typically, there are so many needs of the family and complicated legal issues that multiple meetings are necessary and recommended so that the inherent stress and emotion of the situation can be managed. The best legal teams investigating these types of cases do not charge any fee for meetings to explain what needs to be done and why. And the best legal teams recommend that the family meet with as many lawyers as they see fit to make sure that they know they are getting the best , that they are getting lawyers and people in whom they have trust and confidence. If that level of trust is absent, if the family does not know that they will get the questions answered and phone calls returned, then they should seek other counsel. There are many good attorneys who handle major cases successfully and skillfully; and there are many good attorneys who may not be the best fit for a particular client to meet the particular needs of that client.

Having seen the emotional trauma that results from these types of accidents and other similar tragedies, our thoughts will be with these families.

Varnum has been involved in major airplane crash cases, including involvement with the Northwest Flight 255 multidistrict litigation (working with the presiding Chief Judge on the case), the runway incursion crash of a Northwest jet in Detroit, and the medical survival flight that crashed into Lake Michigan on a donor flight between Milwaukee and the University of Michigan. All six people on board that Cessna 550 Citation were killed. Similarly, Varnum has handled major litigation, from injury to wrongful death lawsuits, for families throughout Michigan and other states.

Families whose loved ones are the victims of a tragic crash can obtain information not only from the National Transportation Safety Board but also from experienced attorneys who can help them investigate and pursue legal claims as a result of these types of crashes. It is important for families and loved ones to be fully informed about preserving any such claims and meeting with and evaluating attorneys before any decision is made about which law firm to hire.

The focus of any lawyer and law firm who is asked to consult with a client involved in these types of tragedies is helping the family navigate what needs to be done and why so that the family members can focus on their immediate needs.

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