Commercial airline crashes typically cause mass casualties and enormous claims for damages from passengers and grieving relatives. Fortunately for victims, “deep pocket” defendants such as airlines and aircraft manufacturers are usually available, depending on the cause of the crash. A seasoned commercial airline accident attorney can help you establish liability so that you can press your claim.
Common Carrier Liability
An airline is considered a “common carrier”, meaning that its seats are available to almost anyone willing to purchase a ticket. Common carriers are expected to operate with a stringent standard of care toward their passengers. These standards are defined in part by a myriad of complex, interlocking Federal Aviation Administrations (FAA) regulations. Violation of an FAA regulation is normally enough to establish airline negligence, as long as the violation actually caused the crash. Airline personnel are also expected to exercise sober judgment in their decision-making, and an airline can be held liable even when there was no clear violation of any specific FAA regulation.
Airlines are held vicariously liable for the negligent acts and omissions of their employees – including pilots, crew and corporate executives. Common examples of negligence that can cause a plane to crash include:
- Failing to abort a dangerous landing in order to avoid filing an incident report
- Failure to cancel or divert a flight during bad weather
- Low fuel levels (a cost-saving measure), leaving little margin for error in case of an emergency change in the flight plan
- Rapid flight turnover, leading to hurried safety checks
When an airline employee negligently causes a plane crash, the plaintiff can sue both the employee and the airline. The airline cannot escape liability by asserting that it was the employee, not the airline, who committed the negligent act.
Maintenance Crews and Direct Negligence
Many airlines outsource aircraft maintenance work to subcontractors. An airline is subject to vicarious liability only with respect to its employees, not its subcontractors. To prevail in a claim against an airline for negligent maintenance on the part of its subcontractor, a plaintiff must generally prove that the airline itself acted negligently by hiring an unqualified maintenance crew, or by providing the crew with inadequate training. Of course, a plaintiff can also sue the maintenance company for negligent maintenance.
The designer, manufacturer or distributor of an aircraft or aircraft component can be held liable for a plane crash under state product liability law. To win a product liability lawsuit, you don’t have to prove that anyone in particular was negligent. Instead, you must prove that the aircraft or one of its components was defective and unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect caused the crash. Three types of defects are actionable:
- Design defect: An inferior design was used for a vertical stabilizer, for example, when a superior design would have been a reasonable alternative
- Manufacturing defect: The product was well-designed, but was not manufactured in accordance with its design
- Failure to warn: The product’s safety documentation failed to warn of a known danger.
Airline and corporate defendants tend to fight hard to avoid or reduce their liability for plane crashes. Because of the complexity of airline crash personal injury and wrongful death claims, the services of a skilled aviation lawyer is essential to maximizing your chances of victory.