The Devil in the Details, and the Seat Rails...
Near Coastal Airport, Florida
August 14th, 1989
A retired Navy officer who worked in aircraft maintenance, novice pilot 47-year-old James M. Cassoutt was attempting to land his personally-owned plane - a 1965 single-engine Cessna A185E Skywagon, registered as N95KW. The airport of choice was a small turf airstrip, Coastal Airport, used by private planes, located to the northwest of Pensacola, Florida, near Myrtle Grove in Escambia County.
Also aboard the Skywagon on that warm afternoon, with the resident of Robertsdale, Alabama, was Cassoutt's wife, Cindy, and their friend, Judy Kealey.
A normal approach was made to Runway 36, a 230-foot wide, 2526-foot long turf field, with thick scrub trees bordered the east side of the runway. The Cessna's flaps were fully extended & full nose up trim was applied per the owner's handbook. At the time, he had only 149 hours of flying time, of which 57 were in the Skywagon.
The wind was blowing from the east at 6 knots, and a three point landing was planned and touchdown occurred on the tail and right main wheel. The right wing came up as the left wheel touched , and Cassoutt initiated a balked landing. He and his wife, also a private pilot, said the nose pitched up abruptly, and a departure stall to the right was encountered.
But the pilot lost control when his seat abruptly came unlatched and slid backward, causing him to jerk back hard on the control yoke. The plane nosed up and stalled, falling into a clearing beyond the runway and exploding into flames.
Cindy Cassoutt suffered third-degree burns over half her body. James Cassoutt and the passenger, Judy Kealey, were burned less seriously, although Kealey suffered a broken back that left her partially paralyzed.
"If you took a human being and skinned them, that's what we looked like," said the plane's pilot to reporters.
The post-impact fire destroyed the seat rails, and an exam of the wreckage showed that the front seats appeared to be in the same relative position.
Investigators who were at the scene figured that all three aboard would probably have been killed if the plane had landed in the heavy brush surrounding the clearing.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident, issued on June 26, 1992, was that pilot in command inadvertently stalled the aircraft during a balked landing.
Enter the Lawyers...
"I don't want anyone else to go through what we did because of a stupid seat slippage." James Cassoutt told the Associated Press after his case went to trial.
The case was originally filed in June of 1991, nearly two years after the accident and took another 10 years to reach trial, stalled for many of those years in an obstacle course of pretrial appeals.
Throughout the 1980s, several attempts were made by Cessna to inform customers of potential problems with seat railings after their tracks became worn, which included a service information letter in March of 1983 (SE83-6), a Pilot Safety and Warning Supplement in 1985, an FAA Airworthiness Directive in 1987 (FAA AD 87-20-03), and an offer of a free secondary seat-stop system for all single-engine Cessna owners.
Cessna initially won summary judgment on the grounds that Florida's statute of repose requires that a products liability suit must be filed within 12 years of delivery of the product to its initial user. The plane, however, was 25 years old at the time of the crash, and the Cassoutts had purchased it used.
Plaintiffs' lawyers argued that the statute of repose had been repealed after the accident occurred, and that it would therefore not be equitable to apply it retroactively in the case. Furthermore, they said, the seat rails were new, having been installed in 1988, just a year before the accident - and should therefore be considered as separate "completed products" for statutory purposes.
After two rounds of appeals, a Florida appellate court ultimately ruled that the seat rails did qualify as completed products.
When the trial finally began in late July of 2001 in Escambia County Circuit Court, the resulting suit alleged that Cessna had known for years that its seat-latch design was faulty, and that it had even designed an improved latch-and-rail system, but had only installed it on higher-end aircraft until 1996, and never retrofitted aboard the more than 125,000 Cessna planes still flying with faulty seats.
Countering the accusation, Cessna lawyers argued that the seat did not slip, and denied the locking mechanism was defective. They blamed the crash on pilot error, alleging that the pilot had little experience or instruction in flying the plane.
"Go to any airport and ask Cessna single-engine pilots if they have had their seats slip," Arthur Alan Wolk, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told General Aviation News. "By our survey, 35% will say they have experienced slips or know somebody who did. The jury was incensed that there were so many reports of seat slips."
Crushing an Industry...
At the conclusion of the three-week trial on August 16th, 2001, the five-woman, one-man, jury deliberated for 6 hours before awarding $80 million dollars in compensatory damages ($10 million for pilot Cassoutt, $25 million for his wife and $45 million for passenger Kealey). For an additional 20 minutes, they deliberated on punitive damages, and assessed Cessna an additional $400 million, to be split evenly between the Cassoutts and Kealey.
Cessna sought, and got, an out-of-court settlement with the injured parties for an undisclosed sum in February of 2002, rumored to be $41 million.
The latest revision of the Airworthiness Directive is 2011-10-09, which affects all models of Cessnas and their seat rails.
James Cassoutt passed away in October of 2018 at the age of 76 and was interred at Barrancas National Cemetery.