Cirrus Cleared by Jury in Yankees Player’s Fatal Plane Crash

Cirrus Design Corp. won a jury verdict clearing the company of liability in the death of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, who was killed when his plane slammed into a Manhattan building in 2006.

The jury of four men and two women returned the verdict today in U.S. District Court in Manhattan following a four-week trial, Duluth, Minnesota-based Cirrus Design said in a statement. The jurors began deliberations this morning over wrongful-death claims filed by the widows of Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, who were flying Lidle’s single-engine SR20 plane, made by Cirrus Design.

“Our hearts are with the Lidle and Stanger families who are still grieving,” Bill King, vice president of business administration for Cirrus Design, said in the statement. “We’re gratified that the jury reached a decision that confirmed what the National Transportation Safety Board found and what we have always believed: the SR20 did not cause this accident.”

The women said in their February 2007 complaint that the flight-control system failed because of a design defect, causing Lidle and Stanger to lose control of the aircraft. Cirrus, which in February agreed to be acquired by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., said the pilots started a turn too close to the eastern shore of Manhattan at too low an angle, leaving them too little room to finish the maneuver.

Appeal Planned

Hunter Shkolnik, an attorney representing the widows, plans to appeal the verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan. Shkolnik said he had asked the jury to award damages of about $43.5 million -- $40 million to Lidle’s family and $3.5 million to Stanger’s relatives.

“My clients are devastated,” Shkolnik said in a telephone interview. “We think we have some very good grounds.”

Shkolnik said he expected the verdict because U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones didn’t allow the jury to hear that the company changed its manufacturing processes after the accident. The judge also refused to allow the testimony of a flight instructor who almost crashed in the same model less than a year earlier because of an issue with the flight controls, Shkolnik said.

Lidle started his Major League Baseball career with the New York Mets in 1997 and played for five other teams before joining the Yankees from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade in July 2006. He had a career record of 82 wins and 72 losses.

Hudson Flight

The crash came four days after the Yankees were eliminated from the American League playoffs. Lidle and Stanger were planning to fly from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to California after flying down the Hudson River, around the Statue of Liberty and up the East River.

About a mile north of the Queensboro Bridge, the plane began a 180-degree turn and crashed into the 50-story Belaire, a red-brick luxury condominium tower built in 1988, killing Lidle and Stanger and injuring three people in the building.

The four-seat SR20, the first production aircraft fitted with a parachute as standard equipment, smashed into the building 332 feet (101 meters) above the street and plunged in flames.

The Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over New York’s East River two days after the crash, requiring pilots of small planes to get air-traffic controllers’ permission to enter the corridor.

A National Transportation Safety Board report issued in May 2007 found that poor piloting caused the crash. A sudden, 300-foot loss of altitude could have been caused by a loss of lift, known as an aerodynamic stall, from the steepness of the turn, or because the pilot lowered the plane’s nose to pick up speed in an attempt to avoid stalling, investigators said.

The case is Lidle v. Cirrus Design Corp., 1:08-cv-01253, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).