Beyond simply wanting you to have a smooth aircraft purchase and operating experience, we counsel extreme caution in the purchase process because trying to make things right after you discover that the aircraft is junk can be frighteningly expensive—and often with little chance of success.
The first thing to understand is that while the design and operation of aircraft, as well as recording their sales and registration, is controlled at the federal government level, an aircraft sale is controlled by state law. Which state law applies can also be an interesting battle as ordinarily it’s the law of the state where the sale took place, but the parties may have specified in the purchase agreement that another state’s laws apply. With electronic signing of sales, and delivering the airplane in another state to try to avoid sales tax, the question of which state law applies can be a mess.
So, even from the start, going after a buyer who sold you a lemon requires some legal research.
Let’s say you’d been trying to buy an airplane for months, only to have ones you liked snatched by buyers before you could even schedule a prebuy exam. You finally get desperate and buy one that looks good in the photos and materials the seller makes available. The seller says that he’s got three other people looking at it and it’ll go to the first person who sends money. You take a deep breath and buy it without a prebuy or much else. You airline out. The seller seems like a nice guy, the airplane looks great, you fly it around the patch satisfactorily and close the deal. The flight home goes smoothly.
Two flights later there’s a bad nosewheel shimmy on landing. You take your new-to-you airplane into your favorite shop figuring that the shimmy damper needs some work.
It’s not the shimmy damper, it’s the nosegear. There’s damage where it attaches to the airframe and the firewall is bent—as are a number of skin panels. Suspecting a pilot induced oscillation (PIO) landing event, the shop looks to see if there’s been a tail strike. There has—and there’s structural damage. Further inspection reveals that the airplane has been up on the right wing. The wingtip has been replaced and the rear spar is bent slightly. That caused the airplane to be out of rig, and the left flap has been adjusted so that it’s deflected slightly to counter a left rolling tendency from the bent right wing. Repairs are estimated at 40 percent of what you paid for the airplane.
You call the seller to report what you found and say that you want to cancel the sale and get your money back although you’d be satisfied if he pays for the repairs.
The seller blows you off—the airplane wasn’t like that when he sold it. You must have screwed up a landing.
You explore suing the seller.
First, you have to find an attorney who understands aircraft and aircraft sales—most likely in the state where the seller lives. In general, to get jurisdiction over the seller, you have to sue him in the state (and probably the county) where he lives. Fortunately you joined AOPA’s legal program (https://pilot-protection-services.aopa.org)—something we strongly recommend—before you bought the airplane so you’ll get help finding an aviation attorney and potentially a reduced rate on legal services.
Speaking with the attorney you learn that an individual aircraft sale does not fall under commercial transactions law in most states, consumer protection laws are set up for sale of new products and some used products if sold by a dealer or broker, but aircraft are often excluded from those laws. In addition, the FAA is not in the consumer protection business, although it will go after a maintenance technician who signed off an annual on an unairworthy airplane if there is evidence showing the condition of the aircraft at the time of the logbook entry.
You are going to be faced with proving that the seller breached whatever sales agreement you had to delivery an airworthy aircraft and/or that the seller knew the true condition of the aircraft and committed fraud in selling it. You’ll need to present the court with evidence of the condition of the airplane at the time of the sale, that it wasn’t airworthy and, if proving fraud, that the seller knew it. You didn’t have a prebuy done, so it’s going to be tough to prove.
You had control of the aircraft for a few weeks. In our experience that means the FAA won’t go after the mechanic who signed off the annual because the condition could have changed. Even if the airframe is badly corroded, there’s a question as to how fast it developed.
Bottom line, you’re going to have to pay for a lawsuit, and find expert testimony supporting you, a long ways from home. If you win there are not consumer protection laws that bump up your damages or require that the seller pay your attorney fees. In our experience, the purchase price of a piston-engine airplane is low enough and the cost of a lawsuit high enough that it’s rarely worthwhile to sue if the suit has to be brought in another state.