The General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) of 1994 was designed to be the savior of our GA aircraft companies. The case that brought about GARA involved a man who sued Piper because he claimed that, while sitting in the rear seat, he could not see out of the old Cub he was taxiing and he ran into a car on a runway. He won that case!
The principal part of the GARA was the 18-year statute of repose. Simply put, this statute states that if an aircraft was more than 18 years old, the company could not be sued when the aircraft crashed and did damage or injury to the passengers.
There are exceptions to the rule; crafty trial lawyers have since found many additional ways around it.
GA feels the pinch
However, the people who make parts like carburetors, exhaust components, spark plugs, and others are faced with the same problem. Similar to the plaintiff lawyers’ focus on maintenance repair facilities, the parts people have become a focus of legal claims.
Precision, for example, has been involved in so much litigation that its liability insurance premiums were said to have exceeded its income from the sale of carburetors and associated parts. This caused it to throw in the towel and give up that part of its production; this is why carburetors and parts kits for them have been so expensive. (See Recip Technology, AMT, January/February 2008.)
Parts manufacturers have come under the gun, even after going to the expense of getting their parts certified through the FAA process. Many manufacturers have to give up because of the high liability insurance premiums.
Many unfounded lawsuits are filed that include parts manufacturers who may have little or no exposure, but get sued anyhow. The costs to defend these frivolous lawsuits raise liability premiums to a point where they are no longer affordable.
A bellweather case
In August 2000, a Cessna 340 crashed and killed three employees of the company that owned the aircraft. The cause of the accident was alleged to be a crack in a turbocharger waste-gate elbow at the rear of the engine. This ultimately caused a fire which caused the shutdown of the engine and subsequent loss of control of the aircraft. Needless to say, claims for the death of the crew, passenger, and property damage followed.
The lead defendant was Cessna Aircraft, even though the aircraft was more than 18 years old and the statute of repose should have protected it from a lawsuit. It did not. Cessna claimed that it was exempt because the claims were barred by the 18-year statute of repose. The plaintiffs’ lawyers want to include the principal deep pocket in the lawsuit for the obvious reason that they have the most money and best liability insurance. The plaintiffs argued that since the turbocharger elbow that cracked was replaced by Ram, an engine overhaul facility, during an update to the engines, a new 18-year time period was started.
The rolling trigger date
This is referred to as the “rolling trigger date.” The statute does allow for this when the new part is installed and it is found to be the cause of the accident. However, Cessna did not manufacture the elbow that cracked, Ram did. The lawyers did not care who made the part (and proof was difficult); they simply included both in the lawsuit in the hope that they could keep Cessna in the lawsuit. The involvement of more defendants increases the likelihood of a higher settlement.
This so-called “rolling trigger date” is at the heart of the aircraft manufacturer’s problem with GARA. The rolling provision only restarts the 18-year repose period if the part was the cause of the accident.
According to Cessna, it is not in the business of making turbocharger elbows, but Ram is. However, evidence showed that Cessna did make them at one time. This means that Cessna would have to cross-sue Ram in this case. The dispute was over who made the part.
GARA: The good and the bad.
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