The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new trial for a White Bear Lake pilot who won a jury award of $27 million for injuries in a crash over reliability issues with his expert witness.
A Ramsey County jury awarded the pilot, Mark Kedrowski, the multimillion-dollar sum based on his claim that Lycoming Engines’ fuel pump was faulty and caused his plane crash in 2010. A few months later, District Judge John Guthmann rejected the jury award, saying that Kedrowski’s expert witness in the case was unreliable.
Now the state Supreme Court, in a unanimous 29-page decision written by Justice G. Barry Anderson, has granted Lycoming a new trial in Ramsey County on the issue of liability.
First, the state Court of Appeals must decide whether the new trial may also include the issue of damages — or whether the $27 million jury award should stand.
Fuel pump at issue
The underlying issue at trial was whether Lycoming’s fuel pump caused the crash shortly after Kedrowski took off from the Lake Elmo Airport. Kedrowski told a first responder that “he lost power and was trying to get back to the airport” when he crashed. He suffered serious injuries, including the partial loss of a leg, but now has no memory of the crash, the court said.
Kedrowski filed the lawsuit in 2012 against Lycoming and Kelly Aerospace Power Systems, which manufactured the pump in a joint enterprise. Kelly was in bankruptcy and didn’t participate in the trial, and another named defendant, Valters Aviation Service Station, “apparently settled with Kedrowski,” the court said.
The lawsuit alleged that the fuel pump and fuel delivery system were “in a defective condition that was unreasonably dangerous to consumers.” As a result, Kedrowski claimed, his plane lost power and crashed. Lycoming, on the other hand, claimed that pilot error caused the crash.
Mechanical engineer Donald Sommer investigated the crash and was the sole expert to testify on behalf of Kedrowski. Sommer likened the fuel pump to the heart of an airplane and said that when the pump starts to fail, the engine and the plane lose power.
“In a single-engine airplane, that means that the airplane is going to come down to the Earth, and that’s what happened in this case,” he said.
Along with other aspects of Sommer’s testimony, Lycoming took issue with the parameters he set for a “flow-pump test” that he used to determine performance of the fuel pump.
The jury determined that the Lycoming pump wasn’t defective in design but was “unreasonably dangerous” because of a manufacturing defect that was the direct cause of Kedrowski’s crash, and that the pilot was not at fault. The jury also found that Lycoming was negligent in testing or inspecting the pump.
Expert opinion questioned
A few months later, Guthmann set aside the verdict, saying that Sommer’s “causation opinion” was inadequate and that without it, Kedrowski had no case. The judge also ruled that repeated violations of pretrial evidentiary order by Kedrowski’s lawyers prejudiced the jury against Lycoming. He granted a new trial on the issue of liability, threw out the damages and denied a new trial on the issue of damages.
The Court of Appeals agreed to the decision for a new trial on liability but didn’t address damages. Now the Supreme Court has directed the intermediary court to decide whether the Ramsey County trial should include the issue of damages.
The Supreme Court said the judge’s ruling overstepped his authority and should have been left with a jury. The flaws that Guthmann found in the factual foundation of the expert’s testimony, the high court ruled, were “questions of weight and credibility for the jury to resolve. We therefore hold that the wholesale exclusion of Sommer’s causation opinion was an abuse of discretion.”
Lycoming Engines is based in Williamsport, Pa., and is a division of Avco Corp. An attorney for the company, St. Paul-based Dan Haws, said Lycoming doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation. A lawyer for Kedrowski didn’t immediately respond to a call seeking comment.