SEATTLE — A defective carburetor is blamed for the 2008 crash of a small plane north of Arlington that killed three people.
A King County Superior Court jury awarded two families $26.1 million for the deaths of Dr. Tory Becker, an Auburn spine surgeon, Enumclaw airline pilot Brenda Houston, and her 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Crews.
The jury awarded both compensatory and punitive damages against the engine manufacturer.
The single-engine Cessna was flying from San Juan Island to Auburn when its engine failed, causing the airplane to crash into a heavily forested area north of Arlington. Investigators at the scene discovered that the carburetor float, an accessory which supplies fuel to the engine, had leaked and was full of fuel.
“Once we analyzed the defects in the carburetor, our investigation focused on the carburetor design, manufacturing process, and failure history,” said Robert Hedrick, an attorney with Aviation Law Group in Seattle who represents the Becker family. “Sure enough there was a significant history of similar failures for years before this accident,” Hedrick said.
Attorneys said the manufacturer implemented a fix for the carburetor problem more than two years before the crash but the fix was not implemented for thousands of aircraft already operating the field, including the Cessna that crashed.
The trial took place in February and March in Seattle. After hearing testimony and arguments from both sides, the jury awarded compensatory damages to the families. In a second phase of the trial, the jury awarded $6 million in punitive damages.
Becker was in private practice in Auburn and was a staff surgeon at Auburn Regional Medical Center.
Brenda Houston was an experienced airline pilot with United Airlines.
NTSB Identification: LAX08FA246
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, July 27, 2008 in McMurray, WA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/29/2009
Aircraft: CESSNA 172N, registration: N75558
Injuries: 3 Fatal.
NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The instrument rated commercial pilot departed under visual flight rules (VFR) for a planned cross-country flight. Shortly after departure, the pilot was receiving radar flight following for about 15 minutes. During this time, the controller advised the pilot that no one had successfully proceeded south VFR and that low ceilings and reduced visibility existed between her destination and her point of departure. Radar data revealed that the flight was initially on a southeasterly heading at an altitude of about 2,400 feet. About 18 minutes after departure, the flight initiated a descent to 900 feet while remaining on the southeasterly heading. As the flight approached an uncontrolled airport, radar data showed a slight climb to 1,400 feet, followed by a climbing 180-degree turn to the northwest, which was opposite the direction of her intended destination. Two minutes later the flight initiated a right turn to a northerly course, while continuing to climb. As the flight proceeded northward, radar data depicted a series of turns to the left and right with the altitude fluctuating between 1,500 feet and 2,900 feet before radar contact was lost. Wreckage and impact signatures were consistent with the airplane impacting trees and mountainous terrain at 2,250 feet msl within a heavily wooded area on an easterly heading. All major components of the airframe were located at the accident site. Review of recorded weather data revealed that instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the area at the time of the accident, with restricted visibilities in rain showers, and overcast clouds with bases and tops at 1,900 and 10,000 feet, respectively. Examination of the recovered airframe revealed no mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. Examination of the engine revealed that the number four cylinder exhaust valve was stuck in the open position and was bent. The camshaft was intact and each of the camshaft cam lobes exhibited severe wear and spalling signatures. The corresponding tappets exhibited severe spalling on their respective camshaft contact surfaces. The engine exhibited signatures consistent with a high time engine.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot's improper decision to continue VFR flight into instrument meteorological weather conditions. Contributing to the accident were low ceilings, reduced visibility, and mountainous terrain.