A civil trial stemming from a 2005 plane crash at Katama Airfield began this week, with jurors hearing emotional testimony from one of the survivors, venturing to the airfield to examine the plane’s wreckage and pondering technical evidence about key parts of the plane at the center of the case.
The plane’s pilot, Alec Naiman, and his passengers, Jeffrey Willoughby and his daughter Jessica, are suing Cessna Aircraft Company in Dukes County Superior Court, claiming that the accident was the result of faulty rails on the pilot’s seat. Cessna is arguing that the crash was due to pilot error.
All three of the plane’s occupants have been deaf since birth. The flight was part of an annual Deaf Pilots Association “fly-in,” in which deaf pilots from around the country gathered in one location and took daily trips to nearby airports.
The trial— presided over by the Hon. Cornelius J. Moriarty 2nd—is unusual in a couple of respects: the venue, which is the selectmen’s hearing room in town hall, across Main Street from the Dukes County courthouse; and the constant presence of three or four sign-language specialists for the deaf plaintiffs.
Using the town hall hearing room affords ground-floor access to Mr. Naiman, who is confined to a wheelchair because of crash injuries, and helps avert a courtroom crunch in the busy courthouse.
A jury that was selected two weeks ago walked across the street from the courthouse Monday morning, taking seats in a room crowded with lawyers, the three plaintiffs, court staff, computer and projection technology and boxes upon boxes of paperwork.
Lawyers from each side, as might be expected, posed conflicting scenarios to explain the crash of the single-engine, white plane with blue trim.
“The fundamental disagreement is why did that airplane stall and crash,” Ralph G. Wellington, one of Cessna’s attorneys, told the jurors.
The plaintiffs argue that a defective system that anchored the pilot’s seat to the floor triggered a series of events that caused the crash.
“If you make a product, make it safe. It wasn’t made safe from the very beginning,” said Donald J. Nolan, one of Mr. Naiman’s lawyers.
But Mr. Wellington said the plane had not been adequately maintained and was flown by an inexperienced pilot, Mr. Naiman.
“We believe the physical evidence will show Mr. Naiman’s seat did not come unlatched and that everything was in good shape,” he added.
On the first day of trial, jurors saw a video of the June 23, 2005, crash, which occurred as Mr. Naiman attempted to land the plane at the airfield. Another plane taxied onto the runway as Mr. Naiman was about to land, so he did a “go-around” to avoid the aircraft. The plane stalled and fell to the ground, and all three people sustained serious injuries.
The plaintiffs contend that the crash happened because faulty seat rail components failed to lock the pilot’s seat into place or prevent it from sliding backward. Cessna argued that there is no evidence that the seat slipped, and the cause was Mr. Naiman’s inability to take measures to land the plane safely.
The jurors then boarded a school bus bound for blustery Katama Airfield, where they looked at the battered fuselage of the plane, and then were shown an identical model of the single-engine Cessna that was intact.
Ms. Willoughby, 19, was the trial’s first witness, describing her memories of the crash. Age 13 at the time of the crash, she testified that as Mr. Naiman was attempting to land the plane, his seat slid back, hitting her feet.
Moments later, on the ground, she said the pain was “100 times” worse. “It was very painful and I’ll never forget how it felt. I couldn’t move my legs, and the first thing I thought was, I’ll never move again,” she said, using sign language to communicate through an interpreter.
“I woke up and smelled gasoline, and blood was all over me,” she said. She later had back surgery to implant a metal rod in her spine, and surgery on both her ankles.
The judge allowed her to raise her shirt to show jurors the large crescent scar on her left side from the back surgery.
She said she thinks about the accident every day. “I always think of it,” she said. “Even when I sleep, I have nightmares.”
Ms. Willoughby, now a student at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., was an athlete before the crash. Now, Ms. Willoughby has resigned herself to watching her friends play sports and still lives a life of discomfort and pain, she told her lawyer, David Angueira.
Cessna’s lawyers cross-examined her and later played jurors her pre-trial deposition about the sequence of events leading to the crash, attempting to suggest that the seat “broke off” its rails on impact, and not in the air.
Jurors heard from a number of plaintiffs’ witnesses, many of them on videotape. (Cessna will have an opportunity to call its own witnesses later.) They included a doctor in the emergency room at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital who treated Mr. Naiman, the first paramedic to respond to the scene, and Cessna officials familiar with the plane, its components and history.
Much of the week’s testimony centered on the history of the seat-locking system and what Cessna did to improve or correct problems. The front seats are made to move forward and back on two aluminum rails, and employ spring-loaded steel pins to lock into holes along the rails on the cockpit floor.
A key issue was the wear, or elongation, around the edges of the holes where the seat pins are meant to lock into the rails. The plaintiffs’ lawyers said it resulted in “seat slippage” when the pins failed to engage and the seat moving inadvertently. The Cessna 172-N flown by Mr. Naiman was manufactured in 1979 and re-fitted with a rail system in 2002.
Testimony indicated the Wichita, Kan.-based company was aware of the potential for slippage and eventually made a “secondary seat stop” – or backup locking system -- in 1989. But fewer than 20 per cent of the Cessna planes that had the rails used the backup system because it was awkward and difficult to use, according to the plaintiffs’ opening statement. Not until 2007, two years after the crash, did the company introduce another alternative.
An expert witness for the plaintiffs, Mark Hood of McSwain Engineering in Florida, tested the seat system and concluded that because of wear, the rails “were defective and unreasonably” dangerous. He also said that Cessna should consider the alternative of stainless steel rails or even stainless inserts in the aluminum rails. “There’s much less wear on the stainless rail as opposed to the aluminum rail,” he told the jurors.
But a Cessna lawyer questioned Mr. Hood’s experience, testing methods and conclusions, including the use of alternatives that he said were not fully studied and tested for working aircraft.
During his cross examination, Cessna lawyer J. Denny Shupe suggested that Mr. Hood could conclude that the seat locking pins had stayed in their proper position during the flight and were only damaged because of the impact of the crash.
According to pretrial documents, Mr. Naiman is seeking up to $7.1 million in damages, while Mr. Willoughby is seeking $1.1 million and Miss Willoughby $208,000.
On Wednesday, one juror was excused from service after she spent a night at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and was expected to miss a day of the trial. That left the jury with 9 women and four men, which includes an alternate.