Trial lawyers shut down Robinson Raven I helicopter production

First they came for the ob-gyns and I did not complain because I wasn’t an ob-gyn (see John Edwards channeling the voices of dead babies).

Now the trial lawyers have come for my new helicopter (IFR trainer; had been scheduled for February 15).

Here’s how it happened. Once there was a little company called Precision Airmotive making aircraft parts. One product line was carburetors and they were the only company left in the U.S. making aircraft engine carbs, including the carb that goes in a Robinson Raven I helicopter.

A couple of guys in Florida went out for a night training flight in 1999 in a Cessna 150, produced between 1958 and 1977, which is probably the very cheapest training airplane available (this one had 12,878 hours total time; the NTSB did not report the number of hours since the engine was overhauled). Flight schools in Florida are renowned for skimping on maintenance. An exhaust valve stuck open, taking the rest of the engine with it. They crashed on a road and were injured. A trial lawyer managed to convince a jury that the design of the carburetor was defective, leading to overly rich fuel/air mixture, and causing valves to stick. Precision argued that this carburetor design dated from the 1930s and was installed in tens of thousands of airplanes, many of which were flying at flight schools all day every day. The jury sided with the badly injured pilots and awarded $38 million against Precision, a 43-employee company (story).

Precision’s next liability insurance quote exceeded their total annual revenue from selling carburetors. They decided to stop making carburetors and sold the business to another company. The new company is setting up a production line in another state and, in the meantime, there are no carbs to be had. Robinson is sitting on helicopters that are 99 percent complete but that cannot be delivered to customers. That is the kind of thing that could bankrupt a lot of companies.

As a layperson, I can’t understand how Precision had any liability at all. The fuel/air mixture is controlled by the pilot. The richness of the “full rich” setting is controlled by the manufacturer of the airplane and the engine. In any case, the plane flew safely for 12,878 hours with the allegedly defective carb design, as did 24,000 other Cessna 150s. In this case, I believe that Cessna could not be held liable because Congress gave airplane manufacturer’s an 18-year limit on lawsuits. Presumably the carburetor and/or engine were newer than 18 years or had been overhauled within the preceding 18 years. The NTSB did not investigate this crash very intensively. “Ancient little Cessna maintained by a discount flight school in Florida loses its decades-old engine” is not an uncommon or surprising story. There is a brief factual report and a probable cause report. The NTSB does not mention the carburetor design as a potential source of any problem.

King Bush II visited Robinson Helicopter on January 30 (photos) to congratulate them on being such successful exporters and celebrating American engineering ingenuity. Robinson won’t be exporting any Raven Is for a while. Maybe Bush should visit some personal injury lawyers and congratulate them on being more ingenious than our engineers…

[For some background on the 1980s shutdown of the small airplane industry, blamed partly on litigation costs, check out this story on the General Aviation Revitalization Act.]

[For some technical background on the correlation between rich fuel/air mixture and valve stickage, check this Lycoming service letter from 1988 and this Continental service bulletin from 1977.  The engine in that old Cessna 150 was probably designed for 80/87 fuel, which has been discontinued in favor of a higher lead content fuel, 100LL.  Most of these engines would actually run better on unleaded car gasoline, but you can't buy that at most airports.  And of course it is a shame that the industry and FAA have not been able to come up with modern piston engine control systems that would keep the mixture at an optimum level at all times (as does the system in the cheapest new Kia or Hyundai automobile).  But I'm not sure it is fair to fault the carburetor company for continuing to sell its 1930s design if the customers can't find anything better...]

14 Comments

  1. Josh

    February 11, 2008 @ 4:13 am

    1

    You’re dead on. Hundreds of thousands of hours on these airplanes with proven performance but the jury awarded in the injured’s favor citing a defective design. Gotta scratch my head on that one.

    And Bush just submitted the same language in his budget this year as he did last year concerning placing user fees on general aviation. :-?

  2. tony

    February 11, 2008 @ 11:54 am

    2

    Philip
    The GA revitalization act only managed to push the liability from the manufacturers to overhaul and maintenance facilities. Wait till you aren’t able to get an A&P to work on the helicopter because his liability insurance is more then he makes. It is always getting for difficult to find a good instructor as they are subject to being sued for stupid pilot tricks performed by a former student.

    I can see suing the flight school for shoddy maintenance…but as the total market size of GA continues to decrease, these lawsuits will kill any incentive to make or repair our planes. I wish there were a way to buy parts and planes that have the ability to sue removed from them – along with a substantial discount. Then we could make the decision if the ability for our estate to sue is worth the price increase on those products.

  3. Colin Summers

    February 11, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

    3

    Can’t they import something from China?

    What governs the liability of outsourcing the part?

    And for now, couldn’t you recover a rebuilt unit to install in your ship? Bring one from home. Borrow one of the 250 from Silver State.

    What a disaster.

  4. philg

    February 11, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    4

    Colin: I believe that it is illegal for an aircraft manufacturer to put a used part in a new aircraft. That’s why you can’t buy a new DA40 at a reduced price with a factory reman engine installed. Until the helicopter is flown for at least 4 hours it is not certified, but rather is in the experimental category. Possibly Robinson could fly it with a new carb (assuming that they have one left), certify it, then allow a customer to hire a mechanic to swap the new carb for a rebuilt one.

  5. Dave

    February 11, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    5

    One of these days, we’re going to wake up to a sky full of Chinese airplanes and there will all sorts of long, sad faces in Washington, a lot of hand-wringing and wondering what went wrong. Blue-ribbon panels will be convened to figure out how in the hell we lost our entire aviation industry, along with our entire auto industry, our consumer electronics industry, our textile industry, our steel manufacturing, etc. etc. etc.

    Let’s put the blame where it belongs. John Edwards and his ilk.

    Our tort system has run amok and nobody is going to fix it until it is too late. The rest of the world is itching to steal all of our industries away from us, and we are allowing a bunch of lawyers and insurance companies to help them. The really great thing about the Internet is that I will be able to come back to this web site to re-read my words when our aviation industry is gone and everything we fly is made in China.

    People, this story is playing itself out over and over and over and over and over and over across the country. Dumbasses like Ralph Nader started this bowel movement, and the end result is that the United States is being killed off. You want to know why there is no manufacturing left in this country? Look at who is wearing the expensive suits. Follow the money. That’s where it’s going.

    This is supposed to be a government of, by, and for the people. I don’t believe it any more. The Federal Reserve decides whether they want our economy to grow or shrink, the insurance companies override all government regulations and dictate their own terms, the politicians are too busy raising money for the next election, the FAA is so mired in bureaucratic red tape they can’t see what is happening to our industry.

    The people are sheep, and they are letting the wolves eat them alive.

  6. Jim Howard

    February 11, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    6

    One of the best things President Bush has done is get at least a little bit of tort reform passed. More importantly he’s appointed judges who share his conservative views of runaway torts.

    If you think President Bush is a ‘King’, then just you wait until we have President McCain/Obama/Hillary. Obama and Hillary are wholly owned subsidiaries of the plaintiff lawyers, and McCain has been open hostile towards general aviation.

    President Bill Clinton saved GA by passing mild aviation tort reforms, and President Bush has helped as much as he could.

    The next President is very likely to reverse the Bush/Bill Clinton reforms and appoint many Edwards type lawyers to the Federal courts.

    I think piston engine GA is doomed.

  7. Lee

    February 12, 2008 @ 2:17 am

    7

    Trial Lawyers? I’m sorry, but what does that have to do with anything (other than tired republican talking points)? What about the judge who allowed the case to proceed – presumably he bears some responsibility for the outcome? Or perhaps the jury? And what about the defense attorney – don’t they have some responsibility to make the same points that you made?

    Or maybe you could even blame the manufacturer? According to the article “the defect had been reported numerous times during the course of 40 years but wasn’t fixed.”

    But no, lets blame the ‘trial lawyers’ – because they donate lots of money to democrats.

  8. LFord

    February 12, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    8

    Lee has made at least a minor point worth mentioning: the trial lawyers shouldn’t bear ALL the blame. Also responsible for the tort mess affecting manufacturers are:

    1. Compliant jurors who react with emotion, rather than being the finder of fault.
    2 Legislatures (including Congress) which pass laws which favor tort suits (in this respect, the Democrats do deserve part of the blame because the trial lawyers lobby is one of the major contributors to Demos).
    3. Greedy plaintiffs, who rather than taking the settlements which could be had in most cases, claim “It’s not about the money,” then proceed, with the aid the liberal, John Edwards trial lawyers of the world, to sue every last red cent.
    4. And, sometimes, manufacturers sometimes (but rarely) do ignore design defects until it bites them in the … wallet. (But probably not in the case at hand.)

    To differ with Lee: Trial Judges really don’t have the authority simply to dismiss cases that have a basis in law and fact (as decided by the jury), and, if they did, the appellate judges would probably just reinstate the suit and remand for a new trial. That’s why it is important which judges a President appoints to the Federal bench.

    And, just as a matter of disclosure, I am a pilot, a lawyer (not a trial lawyer, although I did attend law school with John Edwards), and a Republican, although not necessarily in that order.

  9. Michael

    February 13, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

    9

    Maybe Robinson can take one off of the completed helicopters that were ordered by Silver State?

    http://www.aopa.org/aircraft/articles/2008/080213robinson.html

  10. jon

    February 14, 2008 @ 3:06 am

    10

    Product Liability has very little to do with liability. It has to do with who is in a better position to pay the costs. The courts decided in the 1950s that they needed to be the ultimate insurance agent/societal safety net .

    For a detailed analysis go to a library and dig out a dusty copy of Daedalus, Fall 1990 pages 207-227.

    Judges are sometimes complicit in this political redistribution program. A West Virginia Supreme Court Judge named Richard Neely was interviewed about a case in which tire manufacturer Michelin was ordered to pay damages in a single vehicle accident attributed to unexplained causes.

    His quotes: “As a state court judge much of my time is devoted to designing elaborate new ways to make business pay for everyone else’s bad luck. Michelin will somehow survive, but my disabled constituent won’t make it the rest of her life without Michelin’s money. As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone else’s money away, but so is my job security, because in-state plaintiffs, their families and their friends will re-elect me.” [Quotes are in the public record. See Nov 1988 issue of Industry Week.]

  11. Paul S.

    February 21, 2008 @ 9:26 am

    11

    Trial lawyers are absolutely the blame for these types of messes. The judge who heard the case was a lawyer. Advertising by trial lawyers conditions the jury pool with the message: “If you have been injured, you DESERVE to be compensated”. Politicians and their minions, especially from the liberal side of the aisle portray corporations as evil entities that need to be taxed and conquered. Who pays for all this madness? Well you are getting a first hand taste Phil, we do. The little mucks trying to buy a helicopter, go to the doctor, drive a car, we all pay. Corporations just pass these costs along to the consumer, they have to otherwise they will go out of business.

    The wishy washy politicians we elect in this country all believe the judiciary is the guardian of the constitution in this country and actively defer to their rulings. Nothing could be further from the truth or more dangerous to our freedom.

  12. Tom Jensen

    February 28, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

    12

    Boy, this strikes close to home. We have a nice old (1956) Cessna 180 with Bendix fuel injection (now Precision) which has run flawlessly since installing the IO-470 engine 4 years ago. That isn’t a “stock” installation and when I was working on the FAA paperwork approvals, I needed a simple calibration curve for a fuel flow gage from Precision, who held the data. Not that I blame them, they would not talk to me about that. I learned that the famous Arthur Alan Wolk had sued their fannies and they were not interested in helping me no mater what. At least Precision will sell injection parts to me.

    I fly that 180 as an air search guy for benefit of the public in WA state. Last year, every OTHER emergency worker in WA state was granted liability immunity (in effect “Good Sam” protection) by HB1073. We air side folks were inadvertently left off, so we drafted http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=6324&year=2007
    and got it passed in the state Senate 47:1 (1 vote against was Mercer Island trail lawyer Weinstein.)

    Our bill is stuck in the House Rules committee with Speaker Frank Chopp and House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler mysteriously (they won’t tell us why) opposing and sitting on the bill.

    I’m writing here because I think the trial lawyers “woke up” and are opposing this behind the scenes.

    Because I don’t know how to find out (I’m just a pilot), I’m asking for ideas that some sympathetic soul on this blog might offer to: c180tom@eskimo.com

    Thanks. Good luck Phil, I hope you get your helo. Write me if you want me to dig out the maker of a throttle body injector (Renton, WA) which I can’t remember right now.
    Tom

  13. Chuck

    February 29, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    13

    Tom,

    The gentleman has stated that his Precision fuel control runs flawlessly, so what does finding the manafacture of the Throttle Body in Renton have to do with the fact that the lawmakers are sitting on his bill 6324 covering immunity??

    Since Washington is largely Demos, you can bet they will not upset the Trial Lawers, who feed them in their search for power.

    Arthur Wolk has not found the Renton people yet, or they do not have enough insurance, or money, to bother with them.

    What are you going to fly when they destroy our industry?

    Chuck

  14. Chris

    June 12, 2008 @ 1:26 am

    14

    I think the larger point to all of this is–” Who’s next”- Cessna, oh– Their new “skycatcher” is made over seas already.

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