The Minnesota Supreme Court recently held that Cirrus Design Corporation is not liable for its failure to train a VFR pilot in procedures to properly escape an inadvertent encounter with IMC in its aircraft. In its July 18, 2012 decision, the Court held that written instructions located in the POH and other literature provided with the SR22 aircraft at the time of sale fulfilled Cirrus’ duty to warn pilots about the dangers of encountering instrument conditions during VFR flight. Following the January 18, 2003 accident in which pilot Gary R. Prokop and his passenger James Kosak were fatally injured, a trustee of Kosak,s estate sued Cirrus alleging that it failed to properly train Prokop a non-instrument rated pilot in procedures to escape inadvertent encounters with IMC including the use of the SR22’s autopilot to level the airplane’s wings. Although Prokop attended most of Cirrus’ model-specific transition training, he skipped lessons entitled “VFR into IMC procedures.”
The Court observed that although “no party disputes that as a supplier and manufacturer of airplanes Cirrus had a duty to warn foreseeable users like Prokop … Cirrus duty to warn did not require Cirrus to provide flight lesson [VFR into IMC procedures].” Finding that Cirrus fulfilled its duty to warn pilots about the dangers of VRF flight into IMC procedures the Court held that “[t]he duty to warn has never before required a supplier or manufacturer to provide training only accurate and thorough instructions on the safe use of the product as Cirrus has done here.” The Court also noted that under a theory of liability for failure to act, Cirrus could be held liable for failing to provide the VRF into IMC procedures flight lesson to Prokop. However, under Minnesota law, the Court held that Cirrus was not liable under tort theory for failing to provide the flight lesson because the lesson was included in Cirrus’ contract of sale with Prokop and was therefore a contractual obligation instead of a common law duty to act. Because the common law of other jurisdictions might recognize a common law duty to act in the presence of an existing contractual relationship, a similar case might turn out differently in another state.