Thursday, April 28, 2016

US court denies motion to dismiss claims in plane crash lawsuit: Piper PA-32-300 Cherokee Six B, Star Marianas Air (Marianas Air Transfer Inc.), N4267R; accident occurred November 18, 2012 near Saipan International Airport (SPN/PGSN) - Northern Mariana Islands

The District Court for the NMI has dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for attorney’s fees, but denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims and five causes of action against them in a lawsuit filed over a 2012 plane crash.

The plaintiffs are the late Weillan Lu, through her personal representative Siaojie Ge, Y. Ge, through her guardian Siaojie Ge, Xin Hong, Meilin Zhou, Siaohua Zhou and Ziuzhong Zhu. The defendants are Star Marianas Inc., Marianas Air Travel, Tinian Transportation Management Solutions Inc., Top Development Inc. and “John Does.”  

In an order dated April, 28, 2016, District Court Judge Consuelo B. Marshall granted the motion of Marianas Air Travel and Tinian Transportation Management Solutions to dismiss with prejudice the second amended complaint for damages as it relates to those parties, and their motion to strike subparagraph 5 of the plaintiffs’ relief.

The subparagraph 5 motion asks the court to dismiss or alternatively to strike the plaintiffs’ prayer for relief which contains a request for attorney’s fees. The judge said awards of attorney’s fees are generally governed   by the common law “American Rule” which requires parties to bear their own litigation costs.

But the judge said the claims of the plaintiffs in the case remain the same — negligence against defendant Star Marianas, negligence against Top Development Inc., wrongful death against Star Marianas, Top Development Inc. and Jae Choi, negligent infliction of emotional distress against Star Marianas, Top Development Inc. and Jae Choi, and action for strict liability pursuant to the Montreal Convention against Star Marianas.

The judge said Marianas Air Travel is insulated from liability in this case under 29 U.S.C. 4412. The plaintiffs allege that Marianas Air Travel was the lessor and owner of the aircraft that crashed on Nov. 19, 2012, but do not allege that Marianas Air Travel was in actual possession or control of the aircraft on that date, therefore Marianas Air Travel cannot be held liable in this case, the judge said.

As for Tinian Transportation Management Solutions, the plaintiffs fail to allege that it owed any duty to them or that it breached any such duty, and the plaintiffs also failed to allege facts sufficient to state a claim against Tinian Transportation Management Solutions, the judge said.

The judge said the plaintiffs do not allege that either Marianas Air Travel or Tinian Transportation Management Solutions is a carrier. Instead their second amended complaint specifically alleges that Star Marianas was the carrier involved in the incident, the judge added.

The plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint that stemmed from injuries incurred as a result the airplane crash that occurred on Nov. 19, 2012. The plaintiffs said Marianas Air Travel was the registered owner of the aircraft involved in the crash while Tinian Transportation Management Solutions performed the maintenance on the aircraft.

The aircraft crashed into trees just north of the Saipan runway after takeoff. Plaintiff Weilian Lu was killed in the crash while plaintiffs Xin Hong, Meilin Zhou, Xioahua Zhou, and Xiuzhong Zhu were injured.

Original article can be found here:

NTSB Identification: WPR13LA045 
 Nonscheduled 14 CFR Part 135: Air Taxi & Commuter
Accident occurred Sunday, November 18, 2012 in Obyan, MP
Probable Cause Approval Date: 07/07/2015
Aircraft: PIPER PA-32, registration: N4267R
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 5 Serious, 1 Minor.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 airline operated a fleet of single-engine airplanes that shuttled passengers between two islands located about 10 minutes’ flying time apart. The flight was carrying six passengers and was being conducted in visual meteorological conditions at dawn. After a normal start, taxi-out, and engine run-up, the airplane departed using the full length of the 8,000-ft-long runway. About 4 minutes after takeoff, the pilot radioed the air traffic control tower that he wanted to “come back in for an immediate landing”; the airplane landed uneventfully on the departure runway about 3 minutes later.

The airplane exited the runway at the first taxiway, situated about 3,150 ft past the runway threshold, and the pilot subsequently conducted an engine run-up. The pilot returned to the runway and initiated an intersection takeoff using the 5,550 ft of remaining runway. About 45 seconds after the pilot began the takeoff, the airplane experienced a partial loss of engine power, so he began a second turnback. During the turnback, the airplane stalled at low altitude and impacted airport property near the end of a runway parallel to the departure runway. A postimpact fire ensued; one passenger did not exit the airplane and died.

The pilot did not recall making the first turnback, and the investigation was unable to determine the reason for the first turnback. One passenger reported that the pilot was using his mobile telephone at an inappropriate time during the beginning of the flight, and two other passengers reported that the cabin door became unlatched at some point during the flight. Neither passenger reported that any door problems occurred after the second takeoff. Although there was no evidence to support the passengers’ allegations regarding the telephone or the cabin door events, an airline representative suggested that the first turnback was conducted due to the door coming open and that the subsequent engine run-up was conducted to conceal the actual reason for the turnback. The representative added that the second turnback may have been due to the pilot’s distraction and loss of situational awareness as he attempted to relatch the door that might have become unlatched again. 

Postaccident on-site wreckage examination and test runs and examination of the engine did not reveal any preimpact mechanical deficiencies that could be directly linked to the power loss. Although anomalies with the engine-driven fuel pump and one magneto were detected during their respective examinations, the units performed satisfactorily during bench testing. However, there were a sufficient number of undetermined details regarding the preimpact configuration and condition of the airframe and the engine to preclude a determination of the preaccident functionality and airworthiness of the airplane. Those details included the magneto-to-engine timing, the internal timing of the right magneto, the fuel selector valve takeoff setting, and the fuel quantity in the selected tank. 

Review of airplane performance data indicated that the 5,550 ft of runway beyond the taxiway intersection was more than sufficient for the takeoff. The performance data showed a rapid roll into a sustained bank angle during the turnback, which did not support the airline’s scenario that the airplane veered off course due to the pilot’s loss of situational awareness. The investigation was unable to determine the initiation altitude of the turnback or whether there was sufficient altitude for the safe execution of such a maneuver. However, deductions of the airplane location, altitude, and heading based on the ground scar information indicated that a safe landing would not have been possible from the point in the flightpath where the airplane stalled. Neither the airline nor the airplane manufacturer provided any specific guidance to pilots regarding minimum safe turnback altitudes. 

The pilot’s decision to conduct an intersection takeoff, instead of a full-runway-length takeoff, left 3,150 ft less runway. Although he did not state it explicitly, the apparent reason that the pilot opted for the intersection takeoff was for schedule expediency, by obviating the need for the extra few minutes required to taxi back for a full-runway-length takeoff. Based on the accident flightpath, the additional 3,150 ft of runway likely would have been sufficient to enable a straight-ahead landing after the power loss rather than a turnback. By foregoing the taxi-back, the pilot reduced his margin of safety by decreasing his options in the event of an engine anomaly or power loss. Review of aerial imagery revealed that, beyond the airport’s northeast boundaries, there were very few locations suitable for an emergency landing following a low-altitude power loss, which likely contributed to the pilot’s decision to attempt to return to the airport. Although the airline published the preferred flight tracks between the two airports that it primarily served, it did not provide any guidance regarding preferred flightpaths or emergency landing sites following an engine failure at low altitude.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

A partial loss of engine power shortly after takeoff for reasons that could not be determined because postaccident examination did not reveal any anomalies that would have precluded normal operation and the pilot’s failure to maintain airplane control during the unsuccessful attempt to return for landing on the airport. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s decision to conduct his second takeoff using less than the full runway length available and the airline’s lack of guidance regarding how to respond to engine failures at low altitudes.

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