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On Aug. 14, 1989, James Cassoutt touched down his Cessna 185 single-engine, four-seater airplane and was trying to pull back up when his seat slipped. “He was holding onto the controls,” but as a result of the movement, “he lost control,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Arthur Alan Wolk. The plane pitched upward, stalled, and then crashed and burned near Coastal Airport in Pensacola, Fla. Cassoutt and his two passengers survived, but Cassoutt, then 47, was burned; his wife Cindy, 32, sustained third- and fourth-degree burns over 65 percent of her body, as well as several fractures; and the second passenger, Judy Kealy Diaz, 34, suffered a fractured spine that left her with a permanent loss of bowel and bladder control. All three sued Cessna Aircraft Co., charging that the plane’s pilot seat-latching system was defective. The Cessna system, which includes a rail and a steel pin that engages the rail, is prone to slip, Wolk charged. The steel-pin locking mechanism, Wolk said, does not always keep the seat from inadvertently moving on the rail. “It’s had a 45-year history of slips, resulting in a number of accidents and deaths,” he said. Cessna should have chosen an alternative design that uses a dual pin going into the side of the seat rails “so there is no way to slip,” Wolk said. This alternative, which is used in other Cessna models, “also has stronger rails that don’t flex with the movement of the aircraft,’ he added. Cessna blamed the crash on pilot error and inexperience with the plane in question. The plaintiffs denied that there was pilot error and noted that Cassoutt had logged 58 hours in that airplane. On Aug. 15, a Pensacola jury awarded the plaintiffs $80 million in compensatory damages, including $10 million to James Cassoutt, $25 million to his wife and $45 million to Kealy Diaz. The next day, the jury ordered Cessna to pay $400 million in punitives, apportioning the amounts to each plaintiff based on the compensatory award. Cessna’s attorneys did not return calls for comment; the company has indicated it will appeal. The plaintiffs’ attorneys were Arthur Alan Wolk and Richard Genter of Wolk & Genter in Philadelphia. The defense attorneys were Mark Dombroff and Henry Goddard of Dombroff & Gilmore in Washington, D.C.

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