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December 22, 2000 - Carnahan Family Sues Plane Maker

December 22, 2000 - Carnahan Family Sues Plane Maker

The family of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan filed separate wrongful death lawsuits Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleging that faulty equipment led to the deaths of the governor and his son in an October plane crash. The family asked for unspecified actual and punitive damages. Mel and Randy Carnahan died Oct. 16 in a plane crash in Jefferson County, about 30 miles south of St. Louis. Randy Carnahan was flying the 1980 Cessna 335, which was owned by his law firm. He was taking his father to a campaign appearance.

At the time of the crash, Mel Carnahan was in the midst of a heated race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. Mel Carnahan's death set into motion a remarkable series of events that culminated with his posthumous victory over Ashcroft and the designation of Jean Carnahan to fill the Senate seat.

Cessna Aircraft Co., manufacturer of the plane carrying the Carnahans; Textron Inc., Cessna's parent company; Parker Hannifin Corp., an airplane parts supplier that made the part alleged to have failed; Sigma Tek Inc., maker of the plane's gyroscopic flight instruments; and Aeroflite Inc., the company that serviced the plane are the five defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuits allege that the crash was caused by a failed vacuum pump and manifold system made by Airborne Air and Fuel Products, a division of Parker Hannifin and that the defendants did not do enough to prevent the crash. The system helps control the plane's directional gyroscope and attitude indicator. The gyroscope tells pilots what direction the plane is traveling. The attitude indicator, also called the artificial horizon, tells if the plane is banking and whether the nose is high or low.

During the flight, Randy Carnahan reported problems with his attitude indicator. The instruments are key to helping pilots fly in dark, stormy conditions, as Randy Carnahan was doing. Carnahan had about 1,600 hours of flying experience. The weather the night of the crash was rainy and cloudy.

Additionally, a phenomenon called shear layer, in which shifting wind currents make it difficult to fly, was reported in the area. Randy Carnahan asked to make an emergency landing in Jefferson City. Changing flight direction to the west would have likely allowed him to avoid the severe weather and get to an area where he could fly visually.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, focused early on a valve in the vacuum pump and manifold system but has not concluded that it contributed to the accident. The NTSB will not complete its investigation for at least 10 months, said Lauren Peduzzi, an agency spokeswoman. Peduzzi said the NTSB might release new information in January.

"It seems quite clear from our initial investigation that the cause of the airplane crash was the in-flight instrument failure," said Kansas City lawyer Gary C. Robb, who filed the lawsuits. Also killed in the crash was Chris Sifford, an aide to the governor. The lawsuit in Mel Carnahan's death lists as plaintiffs his widow, Jean, and their surviving children: daughter, Robin, and sons Russ and Tom. The lawsuit in Roger "Randy" Carnahan's death lists only his mother, Jean, as a plaintiff.

"The Carnahan family is grateful for all of the investigating efforts of the National Transportation Safety Board and the law enforcement agencies involved," said Tony Wyche, a spokesman for the Carnahan family. "They have filed this lawsuit to help determine the causes of the crash and to identify and remedy the instrument malfunction."

Wyche said Jean Carnahan would not comment about the lawsuit. The 60-page lawsuits - each alleging 21 counts of negligence and liability against the five defendants - were filed in Jackson County, because Cessna has a sales office located on the Country Club Plaza. According to the lawsuits, the vacuum pump and manifold system were the subject of three manufacturers' service bulletins that warned pilots that various parts of the system could fail. System failure "may result in death, bodily injury or property damage," said an Airborne Air and Fuel Products bulletin issued in 1986 and reprinted last June.

A Cessna bulletin was issued Oct. 2 - two weeks before the Carnahan crash. The bulletin recommended regular inspections of a rubber-like valve in the system, which could deteriorate with age. The lawsuits allege that the same system malfunction caused at least seven other plane crashes.

Cessna, based in Wichita, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Textron. Rhode Island-based Textron is an industrial conglomerate with 1999 sales of $11.6 billion. "We can't comment on anything in litigation," said Cessna spokeswoman Marilyn Richwine on Thursday. "We'll do whatever we have to defend ourselves. The NTSB will be the ones who come out with a final cause for the crash."

Parker Hannifin, based in Ohio, has annual sales of $6 billion. The company makes motion and control systems for a variety of industries. "We have no information that our products were involved in this incident in any way," said Cheryl Flohr, a Parker Hannifin spokeswoman. Flohr said the company was cooperating with the NTSB's investigation.

Sigma Tek is a privately held company based in Augusta, Kan. Company officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday. Randy Carnahan had the plane serviced by Aeroflite, which is based at Poplar Bluff Municipal Airport in southeast Missouri. Its owners could not be reached for comment.

In 1995, the law firm of Robb & Robb won a $350 million jury verdict - at the time thought to be one of the biggest product liability verdicts in U.S. history - from a Jackson County jury for the family members of a pilot killed in a LifeFlight helicopter crash north of Kansas City. An appeals court later reduced the award to $30 million. With interest, the total paid came to $40.5 million. More Like This (core terms) - 100 Results - "general aviation revitalization act" , lawsuit engine

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