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Two Philadelphia lawyers won a $480 million verdict in Florida Thursday on behalf of a pilot and two passengers who claimed that the fiery crash of a Cessna plane was the result of a defect that caused the pilot’s seat to slide back during the landing. Attorneys Arthur Alan Wolk and Richard E. Genter of Wolk & Genter argued that the seat rails in the Cessna A185E had a history of delatching during flight. After a three-week trial, an Escambia County, Fla., jury deliberated six hours before finding that the plane was defective and awarding $80 million in compensatory damages to the pilot, his wife and a passenger. And after just 20 more minutes of deliberation, the jury decided that Wichita, Kan.-based Cessna should pay $400 million in punitive damages. Wolk said Thursday that the verdict is the largest award in aviation history. Based on the severity of their injuries, the jury awarded $10 million in compensatory damages to pilot James M. Cassoutt; $25 million to his wife, Cindy L. Cassoutt; and $45 million to passenger Judy L. Kealy. According to court papers, on Aug. 14, 1989, James Cassoutt was preparing to land at Coastal Airport when the pilot seat “suddenly slid rearward.” Cassoutt was grasping the control yoke at the time and the sudden movement of his seat caused the nose of the plane to pitch up, resulting in a crash that engulfed the plane in flames. James Cassoutt suffered second- and third-degree burns on his hands, arms and legs. His wife suffered broken bones and third-degree burns over 50 percent of her body. Kealy was the most severely injured, with burns and broken vertebrae that left her partially paralyzed and unable to control her bowels and bladder. The lawsuit was filed in 1991, but Wolk and Genter had to fight a series of legal battles before getting the case to a jury. Cessna initially won summary judgment on the grounds that Florida’s statute of repose requires that a products liability suit must be filed within 12 years of delivery of the product to its initial user. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the statute of repose had been repealed and that the seat rails, installed in 1988, were separate “completed products.” After two rounds of appeals, a Florida appellate court ultimately ruled that the seat rails qualified as completed products. The trial focused on the design of the seat rail and its history of malfunctions. The plaintiffs’ lawyers told the jury that more than a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an “airworthiness directive” that instructed mechanics to inspect the Cessna seat rails to determine if they were cracked or if the holes for the pins that held them in place were elongated. The rails were defective, they argued, because they were made of lightweight aluminum when they should have been made of steel. They also argued that the rails should have had a “mandatory secondary seat stop,” but that since Cessna denied that seat slippage was possible, few pilots and mechanics took the issue seriously. In urging the jury to award punitive damages, they argued that “Cessna continues to ignore the simple fact that to use its seat rails as part of the floor structure while making them too light for that function is to guarantee the continued slippage of seats, causing injuries and deaths.” Wolk said that with its verdict, the jury sent a “resounding” message to Cessna that it wanted the company “to fix the aircraft.” Cessna was represented by attorneys Mark A. Dombroff and Henry B. Goddard Jr. of Dombroff & Gilmore in Washington, D.C. Wolk said that prior to the trial, Cessna had offered $1 million to settle the case.

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