Friday, June 06, 2014

New wrongful-death trial ordered - Justices find fault with report in wrongful-death suit: Mooney M20M Bravo, RKJ Aero LLC, N429RM

Friday, June 6, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:39 am, Fri Jun 6, 2014. 
BY FRANK GREEN Richmond Times-Dispatch  

A unanimous Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial in a Chesterfield County wrongful-death case stemming from a fiery airplane crash that killed two people and destroyed a house six years ago. 

The justices found that a report admitted into evidence during the 2012 trial was hearsay. The case was prompted by the April 27, 2008, crash that happened shortly after the Mooney M20M airplane took off from the Chesterfield County Airport.

The pilot, Joseph Anthony Grana III, 40, of Florham Park, N.J., and his father, Joseph E. Grana Sr., 73, of Richmond, died on impact. A woman in a house the airplane struck was seriously burned.

Roger Creager, lead counsel on the appeal for the two estates, said Thursday: “We are very pleased not only that we will now have a new trial of these two wrongful-death cases, but also that the Supreme Court of Virginia has issued a thorough, carefully considered opinion.”

The pilot was flying with instruments because of poor weather and cloud cover. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of the accident to be improper pilot control caused by disorientation in 2010.

However, the administrators of the estates of the two men filed wrongful-death suits against Honeywell International Inc., the manufacturer of the airplane’s autopilot system, alleging it was defectively designed and led to the crash.

The suits sought a total of $30 million in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages, Creager said.

Honeywell denied any defective design and argued the crash was the result of an inexperienced pilot becoming disoriented while flying in clouds.

After a nine-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for Honeywell on Nov. 14, 2012. Circuit Judge Herbert C. Gill Jr. turned down a request to set aside the verdict, and the case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Among other things, the administrators argued that the judge should not have allowed an accident investigation report by the Mooney Airplane Co. to be admitted as a “learned treatise” exception to the hearsay rule.

But the justices held the report was not “a learned treatise” — something sufficiently trustworthy because the authors have no bias and are aware their work will be read and evaluated by others in their field.

The report, noted the justices who also found other errors in the trial, was repeatedly brought to the attention of the jury by Honeywell’s lawyers and was serious enough to require a new trial.

The NTSB said that shortly after takeoff, it appeared the pilot had difficulty controlling the plane. Radar records indicated Grana made several turns to the left and right after ascending in a northwesterly direction for about one minute and climbing to 1,100 feet.

The plane flew over U.S. 360, turned left and traveled in a south-southwesterly direction and climbed to 1,400 feet. The plane then turned to the right, first flying west at 1,800 feet, then to the left, the report says.

The plane then turned to the right and descended.

The plane hit the ground before sliding into the house in the 3100 block of Woodsong Drive in Chesterfield, the NTSB said.


Families lose plane crash lawsuit 
Posted 11:58 pm, November 14, 2012, by Mark Holmberg
Updated at 06:54am, November 15, 2012  

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WTVR) — Inside the Chesterfield County home was 22-year-old Melissa Bowen, who was visiting her sister and helping with a litter of puppies.

The home literally exploded into flames around her at about 10:19 a.m. that day, April 27, 2008. She managed to run outside, suffering severe burns on her extremities.

Her sister, Christine, had just left the house to get something for a litter of 10 puppies. All those puppies and the mother were consumed by the raging fire.

The pilot, Joseph Anthony Grana III or Florham Park, N.J, and his father, Joseph Grana Jr. of Richmond, died at impact.

The home has been rebuilt. Melissa Bowen’s burns have largely healed.

The complex suits were brought by the Bowens for $10 million and the administrator for the Grana family for another $20 million in damages. It drew in a number of firms responsible for owning, building, maintaining, selling and certifying the prop driven aircraft, which some witnesses at the time reported being stalled or sputtering before the crash that April morning shortly after takeoff from the Chesterfield County Airport.

But another witness stated the engine was roaring and the plane flew straight into the house, with no apparent attempt to pull up from the dive.

A detailed description of the aircraft and crash by the NTSB can be read here:

The long jury trial that ended Wednesday largely boiled down to minute parts that make up the autopilot-flight direction system manufactured by Honeywell.

Evidence presented at the trial indicated the autopilot system on the aircraft had failed previously.

According to transcripts, the case was heavy with testimony about gears and servo units that control flight.

It was also heavy with jury instructions. Among the many given was one that said the mere happening of an accident does not indicate a  product is dangerous. If the cause of injury if left to guessing, the plaintiffs can’t recover, according to court filings.

Another laid out seven clear failures of the design and function of the autopilot system that the plaintiffs must prove against Honeywell in order to win their settlements.

The jury deliberated about an hour and a half before finding in favor of Honeywell.

Melissa and Christine Bowen and their local attorney could not be reached Wednesday evening. A person at the rebuilt home came to the door and declined to comment.

The case can be appealed to a higher court.

NTSB Identification: MIA08FA094
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, April 27, 2008 in Midlothian, VA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 08/12/2010
Aircraft: MOONEY M20M, registration: N429RM
Injuries: 2 Fatal,1 Serious.

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 private pilot departed with an instrument flight rules clearance and encountered instrument meteorological conditions shortly after takeoff. He did not establish contact with air traffic control at any time during the flight, nor did he enter controlled airspace on the assigned heading of 180 degrees. According to the NTSB Air Traffic Control (ATC) Radar Study, the flight climbed to approximately 1,800 feet msl, and continued in a direction northwest of the departure airport while turning left, right, and then left with slight changes in altitude. The airplane then began a right descending turn with the bank angle and turn rate increasing beyond the standard rates and angles, and the load factor reached close to maximum limits. At some point near the end of the flight, during the right descending turn, the lower fuselage panel separated and the left rear window separated. The airplane impacted the ground then a house and both were destroyed by impact and postcrash fire.

The pilot's wife reported a previous concern with a stuck flap. Although the impact and fire destroyed sections of the flight control push/pull tubes and components of the flap system, changes in direction to the left and right were consistent with the pilot controlling the airplane. Examination of the wreckage, including the flight control, flap, and speedbrake systems, did not reveal any preimpact mechanical malfunctions. Additionally, Mooney Flight Test personnel reported that the airplane is controllable with one flap fully extended and the other flap fully retracted. No evidence of preimpact failure or malfunction was noted to the engine or engine accessories.

Risk factors for spatial disorientation were present at the time of the accident, including instrument meteorological conditions and maneuvering flight. The airplane’s sequence of turns during the departure and its subsequent spiral dive were conducive to vestibular illusions. Analysis of the radar data in the airplane performance study showed evidence of a flight path and associated increased g-loading that were consistent with the effects of spatial disorientation.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot’s improper control inputs resulting from spatial disorientation.

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