Frivolous Lawsuits: How to protect yourself

How to protect yourself.

The lawsuit

The call came to me from a very upset mechanic in an eastern state. He said that a customer sued him and others for an engine failure shortly after his shop had changed the oil and filter. It was two weeks or so and some 10 hours after the oil was changed when the engine failed and caused a forced landing. A passenger was killed but the pilot owner survived the crash. The ship was a Cessna 182RG with the Lycoming 0-540-J3C5D, 235-hp engine.

Keeping in mind that the pilot had insurance coverage on his aircraft, the death of his passenger would ordinarily be charged against him, since his passenger was not a pilot and could not have been flying the plane. Furthermore, the insurance company would immediately be looking around for some way to recover any monies it would have to pay out to the survivors of the deceased passenger and the property damage suffered by the owner. This process is called subrogation and means that the company can go after anybody it feels is responsible, in the name of the owner. The pilot would of course state that he did nothing wrong and therefore some one else had to be responsible for the engine failure and the accident.

In order for that to happen there has to be a theory of responsibility for the lawsuit. Here, our mechanic (not a repair station) only changed the oil and filter. A simple logbook entry was made something like this:

Date xxx N# xxx TT xxxxx Tach: xxx Drained oil, changed filter, added 11 quarts SAE 100. Engine runup, check for oil leaks . . . none noted. Approved for return to service. Joe Blow A&P xxx?.

We all know that this statement complies with FAR 43.9 and 43.13 (a)(b). Oil changes are routine preventive maintenance and are performed hundreds of times by shops all around the country.

FAR 43.9 states that you need a description of the work performed, the date, the name of the person performing the work, and type of certificate held. Following, this is the important part in my judgment.

"The signature constitutes the approval for return to service only for the work performed."

The theory

It seems that the people (or their lawyer) at the pilot's insurance company decided that since the mechanic had changed the oil he became responsible by failing to inspect for an AD note compliance on the filter adapter that required a new style gasket installed. They asserted in their complaint that the mechanic should have discovered that this particular AD note had not been accomplished. And, oh yes, the accident was attributed to all the engine oil leaking out because of the absence of a newer style of gasket. The AD was published in September of 2000. This oil change was done in December 2003, more than three years later! As we all know AD notes are generally not checked when we change oil. That's the responsibility of the owner.

FAR 91.403(a): "The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with Part 39 of this chapter."

This of course puts the responsibility on the owner for failure to comply with the AD note which is required by Part 39. AD notes are law, and must be complied with.

The oil change mechanic could hardly be expected to disassemble the oil filter adapter plate, converter, and installation stud to determine if the gasket was serviceable and or had been replaced by the new style gasket. Common sense dictates that there is no responsibility for mechanics to disassemble and inspect components not involved with their work in order to determine airworthiness.

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