Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn Does Not Include Duty to Train Airline Pilots

In Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corp., 2011 WL 1466393 (Ct. App. Minn. April 19, 2011) [PDF], the Minnesota Court of Appeals considered how far a manufacturer’s duty to warn extends in the context of piloting an aircraft. In so doing, the court found that any such duty does not extend so far as to require the manufacturer to provide pilot training.

The facts were these: In 2001, Gary Prokop received his pilot’s license, training mostly on an aircraft manufactured by Cessna and logging most of his hours in that plane, as well. He had a visual-flight-rules certification, which meant that he was not permitted to fly when weather conditions might require the use of instruments. He subsequently completed all of the training he needed to take the test to be instrument-certified, but he had not yet taken the test.
In 2002, Prokop bought a new plane, a Cirrus SR22. He was provided a Pilot’s Operating Handbook and FAA Approved Airplane Flight Manual for that aircraft. Also included in the purchase price of the plane was two days of “transition training.” Not to be confused with classes on how to actually fly a plane, this “transition training” was designed simply to show a pilot how the new aircraft differed from the plane the purchasing pilot had previously flown. In this case, the transition training was supposed to have included training on the autopilot system of the Cirrus plane, a feature Prokop’s original Cessna lacked. In addition to this two days of transition training, Prokop purchased and attended an additional day and a half of training.
Following these training sessions, the instructor was supposed to grade the pilot on specific maneuvers on an evaluation sheet, leaving blank those maneuvers which had not been performed by the pilot. Following his training, Prokop received “S” for “satisfactory” on all maneuvers except one that involved the use of autopilot in switching between flying visually and flying with the use of instruments. That part of the evaluation form remained blank.
On January 18, 2003, after being cleared to fly, Prokop and a friend, Jamed Kosak, took off from Grand Rapids, Michigan on their way to St. Cloud for their sons’ hockey game. A few minutes later, the plane struck the ground and both men were killed in the accident. The trustees for the decedents’ next of kin sued Cirrus; the trustee for Kosak’s next of kin also sued Prokop’s estate. The Kosak complaint alleged that “Cirrus undertook a duty to provide Prokop with flight training, that Cirrus breached an implied warranty of merchantability by omitting a flight lesson [concerning switching from visual to instrument flying using autopilot], and that Prokop was negligent in piloting the aircraft.” The Prokop complaint alleged that Cirrus was negligent in the “designing, testing, manufacturing, sale, distribution, maintenance, warnings, pilot training, and instructions given regarding the aircraft.”
Much of the ensuing trial focused on the “transition training” – what specifically was taught by the instructor, whether or not that one training session in question was actually performed or not, and whether or not the crash would have happened if the training had been performed properly or differently. Following the trial, the jury awarded both trustees damages.
On appeal, however, the appellate court focused not on the adequacy of the transition training, but whether or not the manufacturer, Cirrus, owed a duty to train Prokop at all. The issue, as framed by the appeals court, was, “Does an airplane manufacturer’s duty to warn by providing adequate instructions for the safe use of its aircraft include a duty to provide pilot training?”
The appellate court concluded that it does not, for two reasons. The first focused on the purpose of the transition training, and whether or not it had anything to do with the manufacturer’s duty to warn:

Respondents assert that Cirrus offered transition training as a means of satisfying its duty to warn by providing adequate instructions for safe use. But the record indicates that the purpose of transition training was to assist Prokop to be proficient in the use of an unfamiliar aircraft. Although proficiency training undoubtedly promoted the safe use of the SR22, we find no support in the law for respondents’ proposition that Currus’s duty to warn included an obligation to train Prokop to proficiently pilot the SR22–which is the crux of respondents’ claims.

Second, the court focused on the fact that at the time he purchased the aircraft, Cirrus provided Prokop with two sets of written instructions: the Pilot’s Operating Handbook and FAA Approved Airplane Flight Manual for the Cirrus Design SR22.

Therefore, the court held, “any liability based on appellant’s failure to provide adequate transition training cannot be sustained under a product-liability theory.”

This is the right decision for a few reasons. First, the transition training was not mandatory, nor was it a prerequisite for buying the plane from Cirrus in the first place. If Prokop had never availed himself of the training offered, then the adequacy of the training would never have been put under the microscope. Secondly, there was never any allegation that the training Prokop did receive was performed negligently. And, finally, the liability waves from a finding that Cirrus did owe a duty to train Prokop could have turned into tidal waves, leading to de facto requirements that chainsaw manufacturers provide training to every person who buys their product from a Home Depot, car manufacturers give driving lessons, ad infinitum. But for now, the floodgates remain closed on this issue, thanks to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.