Pilot error is a major cause of plane crashes, especially when the crash involves a private (non-commercial) aircraft. In many crashes, pilot error is only one of several contributing factors to a plane crash. An “error” could refer to something the pilot did, or to something that he failed to do. In either case, considerable legal and technical expertise may be required to identify the error and determine whether or not it caused the crash.
The Standard of Care
It is not always clear what constitutes an “error” for the purpose of pursuing a personal injury or wrongful death claim. The ultimate question is whether or not the pilot failed to meet the legal standard of care. Commercial airline pilots are typically more highly trained than are private pilots, and as a consequence they are held to a considerably higher standard of care. This state of affairs makes it easier to establish a claim against a commercial airline pilot than against a private pilot.
Most Common Types of Pilot Error
Any violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s extensive regulations by a pilot is considered an error that can potentially lead to a claim for compensation if a crash results. Keep in mind, however, that different sets of regulations apply to commercial airline pilots and private pilots. In some cases, however, a pilot must make a judgment call in an ambiguous situation that is not specifically covered by aviation regulations. Following are a few of the many potential errors that can lead to a plane crash.
- Navigation errors
- Misuse of landing gear
- Misreading of fuel levels
- Attempting take off with the flaps retracted
- Inappropriate failure to abort a takeoff
- Miscommunication between pilot and co-pilot
- Miscommunication with air traffic control
- Misreading the altimeter
- Failure to execute safety checklists
- Bad flight decisions during inclement weather.
Pilot Liability Insurance and Collecting Compensation
Astonishingly, the FAA does not require pilots of private planes to carry liability insurance that covers their passengers in the event of a crash, although some states do require this. The consequence of this oversight is that in some situations, a plaintiff who wins a verdict or settlement against an uninsured pilot may find himself unable to actually collect the compensation he has already been awarded.
If the plaintiff’s aviation lawyer suspects that the pilot or his insurance company will be unable to pay a verdict or settlement even if pilot error is established, he will look for other parties to claim against (by suing or seeking a settlement). Likely “deep pocket” defendants include:
- The airline, if the pilot was an employee of the airline. The law in every state allows an injured party to collect from a pilot’s employer even if the employer itself was not at fault.
- A pilot training school: A plaintiff claiming compensation based on the negligence of a private pilot who did not carry liability insurance at the time of the accident might have a hard time finding a defendant who can afford to pay his claim. There is legal precedent, however, for a plaintiff to sue a pilot training school for failing to properly train the pilot.
Moreover, if more than one party was at fault, the plaintiff can seek to collect at least partial compensation from other parties who contributed to the accident such as the aircraft manufacturer, the employer of the maintenance crew, or the federal government (for air traffic control failures).
A skilled aviation accident lawyer can guide you through the complex twists and turns of a plane crash claim.