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Injuries And Death For Money A Familiar Tale

I’m on vacation with my family and wouldn’t ordinarily be posting to our Pennsylvania injury law blog.  I didn’t even bring a laptop with me.  But an article in today’s USA Today has me in our hotel’s business center writing to you, gentle readers.

The USA Today article is a comprehensive indictment of an entire industry and the government regulators charged with ensuring its products are safe for public use.  General Motors and its defective ignition switches, you think?  Nope, this expose is about the general aviation industry, the manufacturers who make private planes and helpicopters.  And the story makes it perfectly clear that as far as the private aerospace manufacturing industry is concerned, “If it’s cheaper to let you die than to fix it, you’re going to die.”

The story is lengthy and detailed and deserves a read (it got my attention on vacation, after all).  In summary, though, it relates one tale after another of manufacturers who identify a safety defect but decline to fix it because it would be too expensive; the government agencies who go along with the industry; and the people who suffer gruesome injuries and deaths as a result.  These stories are about $9 dollar bolts and 8 year old boys severely burned and orphaned; gas tanks that burn people alive in events that should merely have been “hard landings”; and carburetors that fail in mid-flight.

The stories follow a familiar path.  The manufacturer identifies the defect, sometimes very early on.  The manufacturer choose not to fix it and begins to cloud the issue with investigators and regulators, who are all too willing to go along.   In the carburetor story, for example, the manufacturer told the FAA that carburetors were failing because pilots were using regular automotive fuel and not aviation fuel.  It wasn’t true but the FAA didn’t check.  People are killed and gruesomely injured.  The federal investigators blame the accident on pilot error.  The people find lawyers, who sue.  The company hides the truth.  The lawyers dig.  Courts sanction the companies.  There’s a settlement, usually involving a confidentiality clause.  The process repeats.

How did USA Today figure all this out when government regulators failed to do so?  Well, lawsuits, of course.  They read opinions from judges who fined aerospace manufacturers for lying and hiding the truth.  They scoured court filings and found verdicts and settlements.  They noted that many of these private lawsuits produced evidence that “contradict the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board…” 

The story is a blockbuster in many ways.  It’s big.  It’s dramatic.  It feels like a revelation.  And that’s the thing that bothers me most of all.  Because there’s nothing revelatory about it.  Companies and people routinely make “business decisions” about safety to protect their bottom line even though it means terrible suffering for others.  Government agencies, to the extent they exist, routinely fail to detect or remedy the problem.  The only “system” in place to uncover the truth, to fight for a remedy and to protect us going forward is our civil justice system.

And yet, we continue to take civil justice for granted.  In fact, we vilify it.  Many people still think civil justice is a system that needs reform.  That greedy, unethical attorneys run roughshod over helpless manufacturers and insurance companies.  That frivolous plaintiffs get rich for no good reason.  Which is why the feeling of this story as “revelation” bothers me.  In fact, there’s nothing new here.  Hard hearted, greedy decision making is the rule, not the exception.  It’s just carefully hidden from its victims, from government regulators and from the public.  Our only protection, the only way we will ever uncover the truth and protect the public, is to carefully encourage a robust population of aggressive injury lawyers. 

I could go on for pages about this but my 11 year old wants to hit the pool.  Pick up a copy of the USA Today or go to www.fatalflights.usatoday.com to find out more. 

By the way, one more depressingly predictible note about this story needs to be told.  In 1994, a coalition of aviation manufacturers and other business and insurance interests lobbied Congress to pass a law that barred lawsuits for injury and death caused by parts more than 18 years old.  The industry argued that it wasn’t fair to hold them to account for problems that no one knew about at the time of manufacture.  They complained that if they were held responsible for the harm they caused they’d go out of business.  Congress went along with it.  Now we know that the manufacturers knew about many old safety problems that they were keeping hidden from regulators and the public.  Remember that next time you hear about a law that seeks to exempt any company, any person from accountability in our civil justice system.  And tell your legislator that you are against tort reform because you know that civil justice lawyers are literally the only element in society with the wherewithal and motive to stand up for the people.

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