On August 1, 1999, a 31-year-old Piper PA-32-260 crashed in Ohio, killing the pilot and three passengers. The plane was loaded within ten pounds of the weight limit: when the plane took off, "the tail was almost touching the ground." The National Transportation Safety Board found that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error; given how close to the weight and center-of-gravity limits the plane was loaded (if not over the limits), the pilot had very little margin for error, and failed to maintain appropriate speed and trim when making a turn.
A forum-shopped Philadelphia state-court jury didn't care, and assessed $89 million compensatory and punitive damages against the maker of the carburetor, finding it 100% responsible. The survivor of the crash was awarded $3 million in compensatory non-economic damages alone. [Law.com; AvStop.com]
The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, a federal statute that imposes a statute of repose on lawsuits against aircraft and their component manufacturers eighteen years after the product is first sold, should have precluded the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs took advantage of a loophole in the law for misrepresentations to the FAA—though the FAA did not find any misrepresentations, which should preclude liability under the Supreme Court's Buckman decision.
The punitive damages of $64 million were based on the $640 million net worth of the defendant, which, as a matter of public policy, acted to punish the defendant for being successful, rather than for wrongdoing.
The Superior Court has already been reversed several times in this case, so it will be interesting to see what Pennsylvania appellate courts do on appeal.