As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.
In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry stopped producing new airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.
It wasn’t until the General Aviation Revitalization Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 that things started to change. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. The whole VLJ (very light jet) market came into being.
But the liability problem never totally went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?
Most recently, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:
Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.
Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.
This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.
Therefore, as of November 1, 2007, Precision Airmotive LLC has been left with no choice but to cease production and support of its float carburetor line.
We are working with the engine manufacturers and others in the industry in an attempt to minimize the impact on general aviation and to provide future support for this product line. There is a substantial quantity of parts and carburetors stocked at our distributors, which should be sufficient to support the industry for a short time.
I’ve seen this news devolve into an argument over the merits of fuel injection vs. carburetion in aircraft powerplants — something which drives me batty. Doesn’t anyone seen the larger picture here? Because crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.
Sure, with experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate.
The only solution to this problem is further liability reform legislation. This could be as simple as changing the law to allow NTSB reports into evidence. Currently, plaintiff’s attorneys know that NTSB accident report findings are not admissible in court. Ostensibly this is to protect the NTSB from outside influence, but an unintended consequence has been to remove the most skilled and impartial source of information on the cause of aircraft accidents from the courtroom. And that vacuum gets filled by paid “expert” witnesses who tell the aviation neophte jury exactly what the plaintiff wants them to hear.
This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.
Personally, I think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. Wake up, people. Today it’s Precision Airmotive. Tomorrow it will be your company or industry that goes down for the count.
Think about it.