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November 23, 2003 - Carnahan Law Firm sues for negligent manufacture, sale, installation of pumps in downed aircraft

Defective vacuum pumps are being blamed for the crash of the aircraft in Jefferson County on Oct. 16, 2000, that killed Gov. Mel Carnahan, the governor's son Randy Carnahan and the governor's longtime aide, Chris Sifford.

The Carnahan Law Firm has filed a petition in the Jefferson County Circuit Court for property damage against Parker-Hannifin, an Ohio corporation, and Aeroflite Inc., Missouri, that claims that as a direct result of the defendants' negligence, the 1980 Cessna 335 airplane, with a value of $200,000, was totally destroyed.

Parker-Hannifin, through its subsidiary Parker Aerospace, manufactured and sold vacuum pumps and vacuum systems used in aircraft to provide operating power to the gyroscopic flight instruments. The artificial horizon instrument tells pilots where the plane is in relation to the ground.

The pilot, Randy Carnahan, crashed the plane after he became disoriented on that cloudy, rainy night.

According to the lawsuit, the vacuum pumps were not fit for use as air-driven pumps to power gyroscopic flight instruments while flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions in a Cessna 335 aircraft.

In addition, the vacuum pumps and systems had a design and manufacturing problem in that they could fail at any time with no prior warning or notice.

Parker-Hannifin knew that the vacuum pumps and systems were being incorporated into the Cessna 335 airplane and of the uses for which they were intended, the lawsuit claims. The vacuum pumps and systems were in a defective condition and dangerous when put to reasonably anticipated uses.

In a wrongful death suit filed by Carnahan's widow, former Sen. Jean Carnahan, and her three adult children, Russell, Thomas and Robin, they maintain that Parker-Hannifin knew of its product failures but did little to fix the parts problem until after the crash.

During the hearing that is currently taking place in Jackson County Circuit Court, an expert witness testified that federal and company records established a history of problems with the pumps.

A 1979 FAA letter to the company stated that a specific time for overhaul of the pumps should be established. It reported failures of 240 pumps from various companies from 1974 to 1979, more than half within 500 hours of use.

Another letter sent in 1987 cited "numerous failures of engine-driven vacuum pumps." It noted 400 such failures between 1985 and 1987 and estimated that may be as little as 10 percent of the total.

"At the trial in Kansas City, the plaintiff produced evidence of 20 other accidents and 46 deaths in the last 20 years," said Leo W. Nelsen, attorney with Holtkamp, Liese, Childress & Schultz P.C.

In 1986, the company did send a notice out advising that planes should have two vacuum pumps, with one as a backup in case the other fails. But a letter from federal officials to the company had concerns that one pump failing could cause the second to fail.

The Carnahan plane had two pumps, and they still failed, Nelsen said. One pump had more than 570 flight hours on it. In May 2002, 20 months after the crash, Parker-Hannifin sent out a notice that the pumps must be replaced after 400 hours.

"They had the ability to know the appropriate service life for those pumps," he said. "They should have advertised that, made the owners aware of that."

Parker-Hannifin argues that the artificial horizon instrument failed for other reasons.

A federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the vacuum pumps were most likely functioning at the time of impact.

"That [report] is subject to interpretation," Nelsen said. "The evidence is inconclusive."

He intends to call some of the same witnesses in this case that have testified in Kansas City.

The Carnahan Law Firm has a cause of action against Parker-Hannifin for strict liability in the defective design and manufacture of vacuum pumps and systems, and for failure to warn. The defendant should have warned users that there had been multiple in-flight failures and prior crashes involving the vacuum pumps and systems, the lawsuit states.

The corporation is also being sued for negligence and breach of implied warranty of merchantability and of fitness for a particular purpose under the Uniform Commercial Code.

A judgment is requested against Parker-Hannifin for actual damages that are fair and reasonable for the loss of aircraft, prejudgment interest, plaintiff's costs and other such and further relief as the court deems proper.

Aeroflite Inc., which sells and installs Parker-Hannifin series 200 and 400 vacuum pumps, did so with a series 400 vacuum pump on the Cessna 335, which is the subject of the lawsuit. It maintained and serviced airplanes and had performed work on the aircraft gyroscopic instruments less than one month prior to the crash on Oct. 16, 2000.

Aeroflite is now being charged with negligence in its failure to use ordinary care to service, maintain and inspect the aircraft. Aeroflite failed to properly service, inspect or replace the vacuum system and related component parts and gyroscopic instruments, the lawsuit maintains.

It has also been charged with breach of implied warranty. When Aeroflite sold the vacuum pumps, it knew of the use for which the pumps were purchased.

A judgment is requested against Aeroflite for actual damages that are fair and reasonable for the loss of aircraft, prejudgment interest, plaintiff's costs and other such and further relief as the court deems proper.

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