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Wed, Mar 03, 2010

Lawyers Use Props In Aviation Case

Paper-Mache Moose Leg, Cessna Seat Brought To The Courtroom

A jury hearing a product liability case against Cessna, O & N Aircraft Modifications, and McFarlane Aviation Products being tried in Philadelphia were shown a paper-mache model of the hindquarters of a moose, as well as the pilot's seat of a Cessna 210 similar to the one Alfred Wilsey Jr. was flying when it went down just after takeoff, killing both Wilsey and his passenger, Richard Ongaro.

C210 File Photo

The two men had been on a hunting trip in 2005, and were departing from the Flying B Resort Ranch in Salmon, Idaho to return to Marin, CA when the accident occurred. The plaintiffs claim that the seat on the Cessna slid back during takeoff, preventing Wilsey from reaching the controls and causing the crash. Cessna's lawyers say the airplane was overloaded with gear, and the carcass of the moose. Court documents say that the defense maintains there was so much baggage loaded into the plane that "there was little if any room for the [backward] movement of the seat." The NTSB probable cause report, which is not admissible as evidence, indicates that the estimated weight and balance placed the airplane's takeoff weight at 3,729.4 pounds, which was below the maximum gross weight of 4,000 pounds. The estimated center of gravity was 48.57 inches, which was within, but near, the aft limit of 49 inches.

NTSB  records also report the aircraft veered sharply left after takeoff before first hitting the ground with its tail and then pitching nose down into the ground. It flipped over and caught fire on impact. The remains of the actual aircraft were brought into the courtroom in a shipping crate.

The Philadelphia Enquirer reports the plaintiff's lawyers had placed the fuselage of a similar aircraft, along with the moose model, in a tent outside the courthouse, since the fuselage was too big to be brought in to the courtroom through the freight elevator. Defense lawyers also set up an airplane mockup in another courtroom to make its case. Cessna lawyer Ralph Wellington called the display set up by plaintiff's attorney Arthur Wolk a "Disney exhibit." Wolk is a nationally-known aviation attorney.

At the heart of the case is whether the seat rails, manufactured by McFarlane Aviation Products for Cessna, have a design flaw that would allow the seat to slide back inadvertently. Cessna settled a substantial punitive damage claim after an accident in 1989 in which a jury found the seat rails were partially to blame for an accident that severely injured three people.

While the accident happened in Idaho, the case can be heard in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court because Cessna sells airplanes there. Additionally, the airplane was modified with a Rolls-Royce gas-turbine engine by O & N Aircraft Modifications in Factoryville, PA.  Wolk also lives in the Philadelphia area.

Common Pleas Judge Marlene Lachman has reportedly chided both sides for their lack of decorum during the proceedings.



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