This newly released photograph has raised concerns that the recent deadly crash at the Nevada air race may have been caused by a defective cockpit seat. The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, should have been seen in the cockpit even if he had passed out in the Galloping Ghost, his vintage WWII-era P-51 mustang.
Ten people were killed and 70 wounded in the horrific crash. The new theory of aviation mechanic J.R. Walker is that the seat slipped back so that Leeward lost control of the plane.
Such accidents raise complex questions of negligence. Flying was historically treated as a strict liability activity and the organizers of the race are the most obvious targets of a lawsuit as well as the estate of the plane owner. While these planes are antiques, they have to meet some minimal standards of airworthiness. If the seat is original, a product liability claim would be difficult. Accidents caused by car antiques can raise the same complexities. On one hand, they are allowed to be driven without all of the protection of modern cars and yet their owners can be sued for accidents. Insurance companies have separate policies for covering antique vehicles and that has been litigation over the scope of such policies as in Sanner v. Zurich-American Ins. Co., 657 So. 2d 252 (1995). In a Lexis/Nexis search, I could not find any case where liability turned on the reduced visibility or capability of antique cars.
The first question will be, if it was a seat malfunction, whether the seat was original or a newer retrofit to explore a product claim. However, even if the seat were new, installation could have been the cause unless there is a foreseeable misuse claim. Usually, counsel would be less interested in the pilot or his estate than “deeper pockets” who can support damages for the scores of injured or killed persons. That would focus attention on the organizer of the event in allowing plane courses to come too close to the stands or not confirming pilot or plane worthiness. It is unclear whether any elements are present in the case.