Three years ago, a small plane crashed during an aviation career day at Gray’s Creek Airport, severely injuring the passenger, two other passengers, and the flight instructor who was showing the passengers how to fly. Justin Emmanuel Elliott, the injured passenger, filed a lawsuit against Cape Fear Aviation, the flight school and aircraft maintenance company that operated the plane, and Educational Data Systems Inc., a federal workforce contractor involved with the career day. He sought compensation for his injuries and medical expenses, claiming that he continues to suffer from aftereffects and is disabled. However, the lawsuit was initially dismissed by Judge Jack Hooks in Cumberland County Superior Court in January 2022, citing Elliott’s partial responsibility for the crash. Elliott appealed and the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to Cumberland County for more consideration.

The appeals court ruling raised a key question: who was responsible for the crash, Elliott or the flight instructor Jake Parsons, or both? In a “discovery flight,” a pilot may allow a passenger to feel the controls with their hands and feet, but passengers do not manipulate the controls themselves. The ruling stated that Elliott did not want to participate in the discovery flight but felt pressured into it by the flight instructors and other participants. Parsons asked Elliott to taxi the plane to the runway, and after some reluctance, Elliott agreed. Then, Parsons took control of the plane for takeoff. According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s crash investigation report, Parsons told Elliott, as the plane was moving down the runway, to move the plane’s control yoke to take off and to “rotate the plane slowly.” Elliott pulled back too far on the yoke, causing the plane to pitch up too steeply as it was taking off. The plane stalled, lost the aerodynamic lifting force needed to fly, and fell to the ground. Elliott suffered two broken ankles, a cracked sternum, lacerations to the head, and injuries to his back. Parsons had broken bones in his face, back, ankle, and collarbone, plus injuries to his kidneys and lungs. The pilot said he has no memory of the flight. The ruling says that Elliott put his hands on the controls at the direction of the flight instructor, and therefore a jury should decide the degree of Elliott’s responsibility in the crash.

North Carolina law dictates that if two people are involved in a crash or other incident that causes death, injury, or damage, neither can collect compensation from the other, even if one is 99% responsible and the other is only 1% responsible. This is a legal concept called contributory negligence. The aviation career day was presented by the Cumberland County Workforce Development Board, Fayetteville Technical Community College, and Cape Fear Aviation on Feb. 17, 2020, court documents say. Elliott and his fellow passengers participated in activities at the airport to learn more about job opportunities in aviation. The flight was an introductory flight lesson to provide participants a chance to fly in a plane and decide if they are interested in aviation.

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