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ARTICLE ID 27168

$________ COMBINED FOLLOWING LIABILITY - FAILURE OF U.S. AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS TO PROVIDE CURRENT WEATHER INFORMATION - SPATIAL DISORIENTATION - CRASH OF SINGLE ENGINE PLANE - DEATH OF FOUR.

U.S. District Court Middle District of Fla.

This action arose from the crash of a small private plane on December 12, ________, at Jacksonville International Airport, killing all four people on board. The case was brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the United States of America. The plaintiffs alleged that the crash resulted from the negligence of the F.A.A. air traffic controllers in failing to provide current weather information to the pilot, causing the pilot to fly into dense fog and suffer spatial disorientation, resulting in loss of control of the aircraft and the subsequent fatal crash. The four wrongful death claims were consolidated for trial on liability only. The defendant maintained that the air traffic controllers had, in fact, provided appropriate weather information and that the pilot’s spatial disorientation was caused by fatigue and his use of over-the-counter cold medications.

The pilot, Donald Weidner, and his passengers James and Adrienne Abrisch and Thomas Bowden, were aboard Mr. Weidner’s single engine Piper aircraft on an instrument flight from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville on December 12, ________. The pilot was a senior partner at his own law firm accompanied by another attorney employed by his firm. The two attorneys were flying back from a deposition in Fort Lauderdale with two of their clients in the back seat.

At approximately 7:41 p.m., the aircraft crashed just north of the airport in dense fog during an aborted instrument landing procedure. The plaintiff introduced a National Transportation Safety Board investigation which determined that the probable cause of the crash was the pilot’s spatial disorientation. The plaintiffs claimed that the pilot’s spatial disorientation was caused by air traffic controllers’ failure to provide accurate and timely weather information.

The plaintiff’s aviation medicine expert explained spatial disorientation as a brain condition in which the pilot becomes confused and his instinctive feelings of movement do not comport with reality. Although spatial disorientation can be caused by a number of factors, the plaintiff’s expert opined that in this case, the major factors were the pilot’s rapid head movements while attempting to make visual contact with the airport and his encountering weather conditions for which he was not prepared.

The plaintiff alleged that as the pilot was making his approach to the airport, he was informed by the air traffic controllers that his airplane should break out of the clouds at ________ feet.

However, the pilot could not visually detect the airport at ________ feet or lower as the plane continued to descend. In fact, the ceiling at the time of the crash was less than ________ feet, according to the evidence at trial.

The plaintiff also claimed that the pilot was advised that visibility was 1.5 miles and was not told of three updated weather observations which showed visibility to actually be 1/4 to 1/8 of a mile. The latest weather information given to the pilot was approximately an hour and 41 minutes old at the time it was transmitted to him.

The plaintiffs’ experts opined that the pilot became spatially disoriented upon reaching the point at which he anticipated making visual contact with the airport, based on the weather information he had been provided. The plaintiff hypothesized that at this point, the pilot began to move his head rapidly from the instrument panel to the ground attempting to make visual contact with the airport.

The air traffic controllers also continued to confirm to the pilot that the conditions at Jacksonville were better then they actually were, according to the plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiff contended that had the pilot been aware of the deteriorating conditions at Jacksonville, he likely would have landed at another airport.

Testimony indicated that the plane attempted to climb, but entered what is known as a "graveyard" spiral towards the ground.

Experts testified that such a spiral is a classic indication of spatial disorientation.

The decedent James Abrisch was a 52-year-old photographer, accompanied by his wife Adrienne Abrisch, 50, also a photographer.

The Abrischs were survived by their two daughters, ages 23 and 26 at the time of their deaths.

The third decedent was Donald W. Weidner, 52, a senior attorney at his firm who was survived by his wife, age 36, and five children ages nine through 25. Also killed in the crash was Thomas Bowden, a 31-year-old attorney with the firm who was survived by his parents.

The defendant contended that the pilot was fully informed of the weather updates and maintained that he became spatially disoriented as a result of fatigue and the fact that he was taking over-the-counter cold medications at the time.

A number of cold medications were found at the crash scene and evidence indicated that the pilot may have had a cold and had taken medications that day. The defendant’s aviation medicine expert testified that the cold medications at issue would have affected the pilot’s perception and judgment. This expert conceded on cross-examination that the medications at issue were not prohibited by the FAA to pilots operating an airplane.

The pilot had been flying approximately three hours at the time of the crash. The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville was two hours and he had been attempting to land for an additional hour.

The consolidated, bifurcated liability phase of the case was tried as a bench trial pursuant to the federal Tort Claims Act. The court determined that the defendant’s air traffic controllers were 65% negligent and the pilot was 35% comparatively negligent.

The plaintiffs subsequently settled their claims against the defendant for a combined total of $________.

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