The family of a pilot who died after a crash at the Hamilton Street overpass in Spokane in February of 2015 is suing the fuel company that refueled his plane at Spokane’s Felts Field airfield. According to the preliminary report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the plane had just been refueled using the wrong type of fuel. Based on this information, the family has filed a claim for wrongful death.
Imagine stopping to fill up the tank of your car on the way to a business meeting. You’re running on empty, so you pull into a full-service gas station, the attendant asks what fuel you want, fills the tank, charges your credit card, and off you go. Five miles later, the car starts acting funny, and then the engine gives out and you sputter to a stop. That’s exactly what the lawsuit, filed by the pilot’s widow, claims happened—only with much more serious consequences than a stalled car.
Michael Clements, en route from Alberta, Canada, to Stockton, California, landed his Piper Malibu at Felts Field to fuel up. The Piper Malibu uses high-octane aviation gasoline, also known as avgas, but the employee manning the pumps at Western Aviation that day instead topped Clements’ tanks with Jet A fuel. The plane took off with no apparent problems, but as the wrong fuel made its way to the engine, trouble quickly followed. Minutes after takeoff, the plane went down, crashing at the BNSF rail tracks just to the east of the Hamilton Street overpass and south of the Spokane River. Clements was seriously injured in the crash and died at Sacred Heart Hospital two days later.
Almost immediately, investigators had suspicions about the fuel put into Clements’ aircraft by an employee at Western Aviation. Both crash investigators and state environmental investigators, called to the scene because of the large fuel spill, noted the smell of jet fuel, which was wrong for this type of plane. Clements’ plane should have used only avgas, but records show fifty-two gallons of Jet A fuel went into its tanks at Felts Field. There are clear warning labels on the tank to prevent using the wrong fuel, and pumps are supposed to use different nozzles which will not fit into the wrong type of tank. It has been reported that the pump used at Felts Field had a “rogue nozzle” that allowed the wrong type of fuel to be pumped. In that sense, the tragedy that struck Clements may have been an accident waiting to happen, which could have affected any pilot.
Traveling by air is generally a very safe proposition. National Transportation Safety Board data for 2013 shows that while nearly 33,000 Americans lost their lives in highway accidents, only 443 died in plane crashes. Of those, the vast majority—over 87 percent—happened in small planes, primarily single-engine craft carrying only a pilot or a pilot and one or two passengers. Commercial air travel with the major carriers remains very safe.
Crashes still happen, sometimes because of human error or negligence. If you or someone close to you has been in an aircraft crash, you should immediately consult with an experienced aviation attorney to determine how to proceed. At Craig Swapp & Associates, we know what is involved when we take on an aviation accident case. Give us a call to discuss your situation and find out what we can do for you. Call our toll free number 1-800-404-9000 for a free consultation, or contact us online to request a meeting. You can also have many of your questions answered immediately by opening the LiveChat application from any page of this website.