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Lacking precedent, Texas justices pushed to set bounds of educational malpractice

A flight training company's attorney told the Texas Supreme Court it is students' responsibility to learn how to operate airplanes, so trainers cannot be held liable even if their faulty instructions cause crashes.

(CN) — The families of two pilots who died in a crash blamed flight school companies they say provided negligent training. The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday probed if their allegations are educational malpractice claims courts have eschewed to avoid dictating school curriculums.

Returning a group of 11 people to Monterrey, Mexico on a May 5, 2019 charter flight after a trip to Las Vegas for a boxing match, pilots Juan Aguilar Talavera and Luis Gonzalez Flores contacted air-traffic controllers at the destination airport and received permission to ascend to 41,000 feet, the maximum recommended for their Challenger 601 jet.

The plane hit strong turbulence in a weather system, lost speed and stalled. Its two engines failed and it nosedived and crashed in a desert near La Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico and burst into flames. All 13 occupants were killed.

Seeking more than $1 million in wrongful death damages, the pilots’ survivors sued plane manufacturer Learjet Inc. dba Bombadier Aircraft Services and engine maker General Electric for product liability.

They also accused CAE SimuFlite Inc. and American Flyers Inc., who train people to fly the Challenger 601 at their facilities in Dallas and Houston, of negligence, claiming they had failed to train the men to safely operate the jet within its maximum altitude and how to restart its engines in flight.

CAE and American Flyers moved to dismiss, saying the families had alleged claims for educational malpractice, which is not a recognized cause of action in Texas and has been rejected by courts in several other states.

The trial judge denied their motion but certified a key question for higher courts: whether a motion to dismiss “should be granted or denied when there is no controlling Texas appellate court cases on the basis for the motion.”

The Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas declined to weigh in, but the Texas Supreme Court granted the companies’ petition to review in December and heard arguments Thursday.

CAE’s counsel Blake Bailey urged the Texas high court not to create a special exception to an “educational malpractice doctrine,” which he said bars courts from holding flight trainers responsible for the conduct of their students once they are flying on their own.

“This case presents an important issue not only to Texas jurisprudence but also to the nation, because this is the first state supreme court to address the application of the educational malpractice doctrine in the aviation context,” he said.

Justices Brett Busby and Rebeca Huddle pushed Bailey to clarify if he believes the doctrine precludes all types of negligence allegations.

Busby questioned if the family of a student who died in a plane crash would have a viable failure-to-warn negligence claim if the pupil wrecked after their trainer failed to pass on a clear warning from the jet manufacturer that if you fly it above 7,000 rpms the engine will explode.

“If the person doing the instructing fails to pass on that warning to the trainee, you would say go sue the engine manufacturer or the airplane manufacturer, we’re not liable for that?” Busby asked.

“Correct, your honor,” replied Bailey, who is with Phelps Dunbar of Southlake, Texas.

Huddle inquired if grieving families would have a claim if the plane’s black box – which record an aircraft's flight data and voices in its cockpit, and are used by investigators to determine the cause of crashes – recorded the pilot telling their co-pilot their instructor had told them to turn a dial to the left to land the plane, but the manufacturer specifies to turn it right.

Bailey said even under those circumstances, as a matter of public policy negligence claims should not be allowed because it would expose the instructor to potential liability based on their students’ future conduct after the training.

“You’re going to multiply litigation extensively,” Bailey cautioned. “Because every truck driving crash, every plane crash, every botched surgery becomes two pieces of litigation: One against the actor and one against the trainer.”

Bailey said ultimately it is students’ responsibility to learn how to operate the aircraft using its manuals.

“I liken it to law school … the law school doesn’t teach us every single thing we have to know to practice law,” he added. “It doesn’t tell us every single thing we have to know to practice law. It gives you a basis—"

Busby spoke over him: “Well hopefully somebody is teaching the pilots everything they need to fly the plane.”

Steve Aldous, counsel for Aguilar’s and Gonzalez’s relatives, argued CAE and American Flyers had mislabeled their cause of action as educational malpractice, and their claims should be analyzed as all Texas negligence claims are – by first deciding if the defendants had a duty of care to the plaintiffs under state or federal law.

Aldous, with the Dallas office of Forshey Prostok, said CAE and American Flyers and all flight training companies must get their curriculum approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

He advised the justices to let the case proceed so evidence can be produced to determine if the companies deviated, or omitted something, from their course materials in their instruction of the deceased pilots.

Aldous contended his clients’ claims are not the traditional educational malpractice frowned upon by courts as an invitation to micromanage schools, such as “someone wants to sue the University of Texas because they didn’t teach Steve how to read well and Steve can’t get a job now.”

He agreed those types should be barred because they present “grave policy concerns.” But he said this case is different.

“I think when you have a specific training program for a specific airplane being offered by a trainer and those people then go out and provide that training, if it falls below what the standard should be for that training then they should be held responsible just like any professional that operates in the state of Texas,” Aldous stated.

Eight of the court’s nine justices heard the arguments remotely due to inclement weather that has caused widespread power outages in Austin. Justice Jeff Boyd was not present for the hearing but will participate in the decision. His colleagues gave no timeline for a ruling.

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