Hagerman, et al. v. Hawker Beechcraft Corp., et al.

On April 10, 2008, the cabin door to a Hawker Beech BE-200 King Air aircraft with registration number N300FL, explosively blew off its hinges while the aircraft was on the ground with its engine idling, killing a mechan. The plane was owned and operated by Alaro, Inc. The pilot held flight instructor and commercial flight certificates with single and multi-engine land ratings. He had a total of 29,000 flight hours with 8,000 flight hours on the Beech King Air.

The plane had recently had its vertical speed indicator replaced, and the pilot was conducting a flight check on it. He reported hearing a loud, high-pitched sound coming from the instrument panel and returned to the airport. The pilot then radioed the mechanic and waited with the engine idling as the mechanic approached to troubleshoot the problem. The mechanic attempted to open the cabin door, not realizing that the cabin was still pressurized, and the cabin door blew outward, hitting him in the head. The mechanic was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day.

Inspection of the plane’s pressurization system revealed that a vacuum line had separated from its controller. This was near the vertical speed indicator that had been installed earlier. Once this line was disconnected, it disabled the vacuum system and the airplane’s pressurization system safety valve. The safety valve depressurizes the cabin when the pilot moves a switch to the “dump” position. The pilot of the Beech King Air reported turning off environmental controls, but since the vacuum system had disabled the safety valve, the airplane cabin remained pressurized.

The updated Pilot Operating Handbook required pilots to verify that the pressurization differential of the plane was at 0 after landing, but this pilot was using an earlier revision of the handbook that did not require this. The only other way to make sure that the door was not inadvertently opened while the cabin was pressurized was a lock that required a button to be pushed in addition to turning the door handle. If the cabin was pressurized, it would be more difficult to press the button, but it was still possible. Ultimately, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot and mechanic to ensure the plane was depressurized before attempting to open the door.

Slack Davis Sanger represented the estate of the mechanic, who was a widower with two young daughters. The plaintiff alleged that the Beech depressurization system, which failed to dissipate the cabin pressure when the aircraft landed, was defective. Beech settled with the plaintiffs for a substantial and confidential sum. The case then proceeded to trial against the aircraft owner and the pilot for failing to detect the pressurized cabin. Although there could have been better safety measures from Beech, the pilot bore the responsibility for making sure that the plane was depressurized before it landed. The trial resulted in a record verdict and judgment against the pilot and aircraft operator.

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