When a private plane flown by Kenneth Gottlieb hit a hillside shortly after takeoff from the Napa County Airport six years ago, federal aviation authorities ruled the fatal crash near American Canyon was the result of pilot error.
But a lawsuit brought in San Mateo County against a mechanic who worked on Gottlieb’s Cessna 182 has resulted in a $13.3 million judgment for Gottlieb’s family members, who contended the crash was caused by a mechanical problem with the pilot’s seat.
Gottlieb, a 67-year-old San Francisco psychiatrist, died on Aug. 5, 2009, when his plane crashed near the top of Watson Lane, east of Highway 29 on the edge of a chardonnay vineyard owned by Jaeger Vineyards.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board decided the following year that Gottlieb had lost “situational awareness” following takeoff and failed to follow some departure procedures, resulting in him turning his plane in the wrong direction and hitting the hillside north of American Canyon.
Gottlieb’s relatives hired attorney Mike Danko of San Mateo County to conduct a private investigation into the accident.
According to Danko, the plane’s mechanic, Faride Khalaf, “had performed maintenance on Gottlieb’s aircraft without properly recording the work in the aircraft’s logs” and that he had “performed undocumented repairs on the pilot’s seat just a few weeks before the crash.”
Danko wrote in the Aviation Law Monitor that his “experts testified that as Gottlieb climbed away from the runway, his seat suddenly and unexpectedly slid to its full aft position and jammed. Gottlieb’s hands and feet could not reach the aircraft’s controls and the aircraft flew off course, out of control. Gottlieb unbuckled his seat belt so that he could scoot on his knees up to the aircraft’s control wheel. But before Dr. Gottlieb could regain control of the aircraft, it crashed into the hillside.”
The civil trial occurred over seven days in San Mateo Superior Court. Last Thursday, the jury found Khalaf negligent and awarded the plaintiffs $13,360,000 in economic and non-economic damages.
According to Danko, this may be a record award in California for the death of someone over age 65.