In December 2002, Gary Prokup, a 200-hour, non-instrument rated private pilot, purchased a new SR22 aircraft from Cirrus, the manufacturer.  Included with the price of the aircraft, Cirrus offered a new owner transition training program, an obligation which Cirrus subcontracted to the University of North Dakota Flight Foundation (UNDAF).  Prokup registered for and took the training.

In January 2003, Prokup embarked on a visual flight rules only flight.  While in flight, Prokup inadvertently encountered instrument flight conditions, lost control of the aircraft and crashed, killing himself and his passenger.  The estates of Prokup and the passenger brought wrongful death actions against Cirrus based on strict liability and negligence for alleged failure to provide a particular training lesson on recovering from inadvertent entry to instrument flight conditions.

There was conflicting evidence at trial as to whether Prokup received the recovery training.  Nonetheless, the jury found Cirrus and UNDAF 75% negligent and Prokup 25% negligent and awarded $7.4 million damages to the passenger’s estate and $12 million to the Prokup estate.  Cirrus appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which reversed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.

Plaintiffs argued on appeal that Cirrus (1) had a tort duty as a product supplier and manufacturer to give adequate instruction in the safe use of its aircraft and (2) contractually assumed a tort duty to provide the specified training, and that under either theory, Cirrus breached its duty by failing to provide it.

In Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corporation, 816 N.W.2d 572 (Minn. 2012), the Minnesota Supreme Court held, 4 to 2, that the tort duty of a product supplier to warn does not include a duty to train under Minnesota law, notwithstanding a contractual undertaking to provide training.  The Court concluded that Cirrus adequately discharged its duty to warn by providing written instructions in the aircraft and autopilot handbooks, stating, “The duty to warn has never before required a supplier or manufacturer to provide training, only accurate and thorough instructions on the safe use of the product, as Cirrus has done here.”  It further held that Cirrus’ only obligation to provide training arose from the aircraft purchase contract, for which tort damages could not be recovered under Minnesota law.

The dissent contended that the jury found Cirrus’ written materials alone, absent the training, an inadequate warning, and that the majority should not have disregarded the jury’s determination.  The dissent further noted that under Minnesota law a party can assume a tort duty via contract and be liable for tort damages where death or personal injury occurs, and asserted that the jury verdict should have been affirmed on either basis.

Glorvigen’s holding that the tort duty to warn does not include a duty to train is consistent with current law.  What Glorvigen touches upon that is less clear and may vary by jurisdiction, is whether a manufacturer or supplier can assume a tort duty in a contract giving rise to tort remedies, which are often more favorable to plaintiffs than breach of contract remedies.  Although the Glorvigen majority refused to allow recovery in tort for a breach of a contractual undertaking to train, case law in many states allows such recovery for a breach of contract or an assumed duty that results in property damage, personal injury or death.  Aircraft and component vendors which offer operational and maintenance training, as well as flight schools, should consider adopting provisions limiting or excluding tort damages for claims arising from alleged failure to provide training or other contractual obligations.  It should be noted, however, that the enforceability of restrictions on the ability to limit or exclude tort liability depends on applicable state law and the factual circumstances presented.

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