Limitation of Liability in Plane Crashes for Common Air Carriers
In cases where the plaintiff can establish that the common air carrier’s negligence caused injury, the plaintiff might still face a limit in the amount of money a court will award the plaintiff. Under the Federal Aviation Act, an air carrier can file with the Civil Aeronautics Board a tariff containing rules and regulations for the transportation of persons. As part of the tariff, an air carrier can declare a limit to its liability. As an example, and air carrier could declare a liability limit of $75,000 per passenger. In the case of an accident based on ordinary negligence, regardless of the damages a passenger might incur, a court would limit any recover to $75,000. This limit on an air carrier’s liability does not apply in cases where a plaintiff establishes a claim based on gross negligence or purposeful, willful or wanton conduct. Consequently, cases involving air carriers often focus on the level of negligence of the air carrier, in order that the plaintiff might avoid the liability limit.
In addition, the Warsaw Convention, a 1929 agreement between several nations, including the United States, limits the liability of air carriers in the event of accidents on international flights to $75,000. Under the Warsaw Convention, a plaintiff can file suit in one of four possible places, or “venues”: (1) the country where the passenger purchased the ticket, (2) the country of the passenger’s final destination, (3) the country where the airline is incorporated, or (4) the country where the airline maintains its principle place of business. The Warsaw Convention’s liability limit does not apply in the event of the airline’s “willful misconduct”, a subject that is frequently and fiercely litigated.
The Federal Aviation Act dictates the technical safety standards for aircraft operated in the United States. The Act does not, however, create a cause of action for plaintiffs injured as the result of a defendant’s failure to meet those safety standards. A plaintiff must find a cause of action, therefore, in the individual states’ laws. The causes of action that might exist as the result of an aviation accident depend upon the nature of the accident. In cases where controlled flight into terrain, approach and landing, loss of control, runway incursions, or weather (including turbulence) caused the accident, a claim of negligence against the airline and the pilots might exist. Such negligence claims include personal injury claims, injury to property claims, and wrongful death claims. In those cases, a plaintiff would need to establish that the pilot failed to act in a manner comporting with the skill of the average commercial pilot. If the plaintiff fails to establish that the average commercial pilot should have avoided the accident then a court will not find the airline liable.
Personal Injury Claims
In a personal injury or injury to property case, the plaintiff must show that the air carrier, or one of its employees acted negligently, and that as a result, the plaintiff incurred injury to him or herself or to his or her property. In injury to property claims, the jury can award a plaintiff damages in the amount of repairing or replacing the damaged property. In personal injury claims, the jury can award a plaintiff damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, both past and future, and inconvenience as a result of bodily injury.
Wrongful death claims have certain requirements that differ from personal injury claims. The individual suing for wrongful death must have a relationship to the decedent on whose behalf the suit is being brought. In some states only parents, children, spouses or executors of the decedent’s estate may bring a wrongful death claim. As part of such a claim, the plaintiff must show that the decedent’s death resulted from the negligent, wanton or willful actions of the defendant air carrier. In such cases, if the death occurred instantaneously, the jury can award the plaintiff from loss of consortium, lost wages, loss of future income or earning capacity. In cases where death does not occur instantaneously, and the plaintiff can prove the decedent’s conscious suffering, the jury can also award damages for pain and suffering, bodily mutilation, and mental anguish.
In a case in which mechanical failure contributed to the accident, the plaintiff may have to establish that the pilot’s negligence contributed to the accident or that a mechanic negligently failed to detect or properly repair a component of the plane. In such cases, the plaintiff can maintain a lawsuit against the common air carrier or the owner of the private plane. A few states may also allow an action for breach of implied warranty of a plane’s airworthiness in such a case; however, many states do not allow an implied breach of warranty to support a wrongful death suit.Where a mechanical failure results from a defect in the design or construction of an airplane or a component of the airplane, the plaintiff may establish a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the component or the airplane. In a products liability claim based on defective construction or manufacturing, the plaintiff must establish that the manufacturer of the component that caused the accident failed to detect a defect in the particular component that was used in the airplane that had the accident.
Products liability based on the premise that the design of the particular component was defective represents a unique hurdle for a plaintiff, in that the plaintiff must establish that the manufacturer could have used a reasonable, alternative design that would have prevented the injury. A plaintiff might incur great expense in pursuing a products liability case based on defective design. In order to establish a reasonable, alternative design the plaintiff will likely have to hire an engineer or other expert to critique the manufacturer’s design and to suggest the alternative design. A products liability case faces a better chance for success if prior cases have already established that the design of the component is defective.
Pilot or Employee Error
Under a legal doctrine known as respondeat superior, the high degree of care required of a common carrier extends to its employees, including pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics. Therefore, if an accident occurs in which pilot error results in some accident that causes a passenger injury, that passenger can maintain a suit not only against the pilot for his or her error, but also against the pilots employer, the airline. In effect, employees acting in their capacity as employees “stand in” for the airline. Thus, an employee’s error is the airline’s error.
Limitation of Liability for General Aviation
While the Warsaw Convention and Federal Aviation Act rules limiting liability do not apply to general aviators, some states, such as South Dakota and Illinois have Guest Statutes, which limit the liability of a private plane owner. Guest statutes require that a plaintiff who suffers injuries while a guest on an owner’s plane show wanton or willful conduct resulted in the plaintiff’s injury. This standard represents a higher hurdle for a plaintiff than mere negligence. Wanton and willful conduct includes actions that purposefully caused an accident, as well as action that appeared so likely to cause the accident that any reasonable person would not have acted in that manner. In order for a Guest Statute to operate to protect an owner of a plane, the owner must show that he or she allowed the plaintiff to ride in the plane without charging fare, and that the accident did not result from purposeful or grossly irresponsible behavior. Furthermore, the plaintiff must have incurred his or her injury while a passenger on the owner’s plane.
Unlike commercial air carriers, the law generally does not require private or general aviators to maintain a heightened standard of care towards its passengers. The law treats a general aviator much like the operator of a motor vehicle, requiring that the pilot use reasonable care to prevent accident or injury. Even in cases where a general aviator agrees to carry a fare-paying passenger, only the ordinary rules of negligence and due care apply with respect to the maintenance and inspection of the aircraft. Like the standard for commercial pilots, the pilot of a private aircraft must still comport with the standards of care and expertise of the average, qualified pilot in the operation of the plane.
Many states make owners of private planes vicariously liable for the actions of a pilot operation the owner’s plane, even where that pilot is not an employee of the owner. This rule allows a plaintiff injured on a private plane to sue the owner, even if the owner did not directly contribute accident that caused the plaintiff’s injury. States designed this rule to encourage owners of private aircraft to take the utmost care in deciding whether to allow an individual to fly the owner’s plane. If the owner knows that any error the pilot might make could result in liability on the owner’s part, then the owner might select more carefully those people allowed to pilot his aircraft.
Another unique aspect of liability law for general aviators is the absolute liability for objects falling from the plane while in flight. Several states have enacted laws that hold a private plane owner liable for any injuries resulting from objects falling from the owner’s plane. Absolute liability, also known as strict liability, holds the owner responsible for any damage regardless of whether the owner could have done something to prevent the accident. Thus, if a plaintiff incurs an injury from an object falling from the plane while it is in flight, the plaintiff can hold the owner of that plane absolutely liable for any resulting damages.
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