Plane-maker says it's not to blame for Lidle death

Philadelphia Phillies starter Corey Lidle throws to the San Francisco Giants in the fourth inning of a baseball game on Saturday, July 15, 2006 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

April 27, 2011 2:38:01 PM PDT
A lawyer for the manufacturer of the small plane that New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and a flight instructor were piloting when they crashed into a Manhattan apartment building in 2006 told a jury Wednesday that the victims, not the company, were to blame for their deaths.

The jury heard opening statements in a lawsuit brought by Lidle's wife and the family of Lidle's instructor, Tyler Stanger, that blames Cirrus Design Corp. for the crash. Lidle, who was 34, died just days after his baseball season ended.

The Duluth, Minn.-based company is "genuinely sorry" that its Cirrus SR-20 was involved in the "terrible tragedy" that instantly killed Lidle and Stanger, Attorney Patrick Bradley said in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. But it "is wrong and unfair to blame someone for something they didn't do," Bradley said.

Bradley spoke after California attorney Todd Macaluso told jurors that he would prove that the company rushed the plane into production a decade ago with an inferior control system. Lidle and Stanger desperately tried to re-engage a jammed steering system as the plane went out of control, rolling and dropping altitude in the last 45 seconds before the crash, Macaluso said.

Bradley blamed the October 2006 crash on a series of pilot errors that began after the men tried to make a sharp "high performance" turn in one of the busiest air corridors in the country, a move he compared to trying to make a sharp left turn while driving a car at 55 mph to 65 mph. He said the pilots could have started the maneuver from an altitude of up to 1,200 feet, but instead were only at about 600 feet, about half the height of the Empire State Building.

Bradley said the plane rose to about 700 feet, appeared to stall and then dramatically descended to less than 400 feet before smashing into the building at an altitude of about 330 feet.

He said Lidle and Stanger never notified anyone of an emergency and did not try to use the plane's parachute, a safety feature the company pioneered after one of its founders once survived a mid-air collision between two planes. He said Lidle had bought the plane months earlier and had flown it for only four hours before the accident. Both men were flying it when it crashed.

Macaluso said Stanger had 2,500 hours of flight experience, but Bradley said Stanger had only 25 hours of experience in the Cirrus SR-20 and that neither Lidle nor Stanger had ever flown up the East River corridor.

Bradley's opening followed a presentation by Macaluso that relied heavily on graphics displayed to jurors on a large screen.

Macaluso said Lidle and Stanger began the flight from a New Jersey airport after their families enjoyed a visit to the top of the Empire State Building. He showed jurors a photograph that was taken there.

He said the men's wives and children were going to board commercial jets to California, while Lidle and Stanger flew the private plane, but only after a swing past the Statue of Liberty.

After going around the landmark, they headed up the East River, where Macaluso said an employee at a Queens power plant saw them get so close to a large gas tank that he thought it was a terrorist attack. Bradley disputed this, saying radar hits registered every 4.5 seconds prove the plane never flew over Queens.

Macaluso said the men bent the joysticks used to control the wings in a bid to unjam flight controls as they tried to prevent an accident that had never happened in the thousands of times pilots have made a similar turn over the East River in Manhattan.

"They did everything that a prudent pilot would do," he said. "There is no pilot error."

Macaluso said there were even signs the pilots may have been trying to engage the parachute before they crashed.

At one point, Macaluso showed photographs taken inside the apartment that the plane crashed into. As he did, Lidle's widow, Melanie, seated in the front row, dabbed tears from her eyes. The families are suing for more than $100 million.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the two men misjudged the turn and didn't realize their mistake until it was too late. That conclusion was not told to the jury.

Both attorneys held models of the airplane in front of the jury, sometimes turning them to demonstrate a roll or the effects of wind. Bradley brought along a model of some of the buildings the plane encountered before the crash. They were large enough that they partially blocked Judge Barbara Jones' view of the jury box, where one juror seemed to fall asleep at times.

When Bradley demonstrated how the plane approached the building, he set down his larger model airplane and replaced it with one about as big as a box of matches.

He said it was impossible for the plane's flight control system to lock up. And he used some of the same evidence that Macaluso cited to make his case.

"Is this about science? Yes," he said. "But you've got to get the analysis right."