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Minnesota Extends Education-Malpractice Doctrine to Aircraft Manufacturer

By Christina Michelle Jordan, Litigation News Associate Editor – August 18, 2011

An airplane manufacturer may avail itself to the protection of the educational-malpractice doctrine according to a recent decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals. This result garners mixed reviews, and some contend it is too broad an expansion of the doctrine. It raises concerns that, per the dissent, “every coffee pot manufacturer who issues instructions for its product’s use would constitute an educational institution to which the . . . bar would apply.”


Educational-Malpractice Doctrine in Minnesota
The educational-malpractice doctrine bars individuals from asserting claims of negligent instruction against an educational institution. Minnesota first recognized the educational-malpractice doctrine in 1999 in Alsides v. Brown Inst., Ltd.


In Alsides, the court followed the majority rule that the educational-malpractice doctrine bars inquiries “into the nuances of educational processes and theories.” Specifically, the Alsides court noted that several public policy grounds exist for rejecting such claims, “including: (1) the lack of a satisfactory standard of care by which to evaluate an educator; (2) the inherent uncertainties about causation and the nature of damages in light of such intervening factors as a student's attitude, motivation, temperament, past experience, and home environment; (3) the potential for a flood of litigation against schools; and (4) the possibility that such claims will ‘embroil the courts into overseeing the day-to-day operations of schools.’”


Glorvigen vs. Cirrus Design Corp.
In Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corp. [PDF], the plane’s manufacturer, Cirrus, marketed its SR22 plane with two “transition training lessons.” The plaintiffs (the estates of the pilot and his passenger) claimed that an allegedly undelivered flight lesson resulted in a plane crash that killed the pilot and the passenger.


The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict and trial court’s denial of posttrial motions against the defendants. It held that the plaintiffs’ claims sounded in educational malpractice and, therefore, barred as a matter of law.


Quality of Training
The court in Glorvigen, citing Alsides, found, “[A] determination of whether the transition training was ineffective because the instructor failed to provide a flight lesson on this topic would involve an inquiry into the nuances of the educational process.” This fits squarely within the doctrine.


The dissent countered that the decision, “depends on weighing the facts found by the jury in a light unfavorable to the verdict, sidestepping the settled principles of negligence law while expanding the educational-malpractice doctrine.” It noted that the complaint turned on the alleged failure to provide a specific lesson in the training plan. This lesson arguably would have trained the pilot to escape from exactly the type of situation that caused his death.


At trial, the jury heard conflicting evidence on whether the lesson occurred. The line on the training record checklist was blank, which meant the pilot skipped this lesson. The instructor, however, testified he gave this lesson. The jury’s verdict would indicate they believed the pilot did not receive this lesson.


Litigators Weigh in on Educational Malpractice
“The majority on appeal was expanding [the doctrine], going beyond the effectiveness of the educational process and the nuances of the educational process and into there being no educational process,” says Michael J. Cawley, Philadelphia, cochair of the Products Liability Subcommittee of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Insurance Coverage Litigation Committee.


“From the facts, it seems that there was no education, or that the jury could believe that there was no educational step taken,” notes Cawley. “How can you apply educational malpractice to a situation where there was not any education on this aspect?” he asks.


According to the dissent, the plaintiffs did not allege that the instructions were ineffective. Instead, they premised their claim on the fact that the relevant lesson was not provided. “On these facts, the crash here is a direct and foreseeable consequence of appellants’ failure to provide the salient portion of the transition training,” the dissent said.


Although Cirrus provided written materials, it would not release the plane to the pilot until the training was completed. “If the written [material] was sufficient, they wouldn’t have had the training,” notes Cawley.


“When all is said and done, they are claiming that the school and Cirrus—the airplane manufacturer—did not ensure that this pilot was proficient,” says Nathaniel Cade Jr., Milwaukee, cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Products Liability Committee. Cade agrees with the majority’s decision.


“[Cirrus] was not guaranteeing that they would make him proficient. More importantly, you don’t need to be proficient to operate the plane. The FAA is the one who determines whether or not you get the license,” adds Cade.


Who Is an Educational Institution?
The court noted that even though, “Cirrus is not primarily in the business of education, it assumed educational responsibilities.” On this basis, it was willing to extend the protection of the doctrine to Cirrus.


The danger, the dissent cautioned, is expanding the definition of educational institution to confer this status on the airplane manufacturer. Cawley agrees, “A company that makes an airplane does not, in my opinion, fall into that [the educational institution] category.” As the dissent suggested, this expansion may result in “every coffee pot manufacturer” constituting an educational institution, too.


Keywords: litigation, educational malpractice, products liability, Minnesota Court of Appeals


 
Related Resources

  • » Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corp., 2011 Minn. App. LEXIS 35 (Minn. Ct. App., Apr. 19, 2011).
  • » Alsides v. Brown Inst., Ltd., 1999 Minn. App. LEXIS 381 (Minn. Ct. App., Apr. 13, 1999).
  • » Django Gold, "Minn. Court Reverses $16M Plane Crash Verdict," Law 360 (Apr. 20, 2011).

 

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