Plane crashes may occur for a variety of reasons – indeed, many crashes are caused by a combination of adverse factors. Nevertheless, maintenance negligence is a factor in approximately 40 percent of all plane crashes. Detecting and proving aircraft maintenance negligence can be a challenging endeavor, especially in the case of accidents involving small private planes.
Investigating the Crash
Determining whether or not a plane crash was caused by maintenance negligence generally requires a thorough investigation by someone with a knowledge of aircraft mechanics. Although an investigation is always carried out by federal authorities, the plaintiff may choose to pursue his own investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the U.S. government agency that is responsible for investigating all civil aviation accidents that occur in the United States. This responsibility can function as an aid to plaintiffs in maintenance negligence claims, because an NTSB accident report can be used as evidence in a civil lawsuit. Since plane crash investigations are typically expensive, the NTSB can relieve a plaintiff of much of the financial burden for establishing an accident claim.
The Plaintiff: NTSB investigations of aviation accidents involving small private planes tend to be much less comprehensive than investigations into commercial airline crashes. Where an NTSB investigation is cursory or superficial, or where the NTSB’s conclusions insufficiently support the plaintiff’s claims, the plaintiff may need to carry out his own investigation. Even if the plaintiff lacks the financial resources to accomplish this, many aviation accident law firms will agree to take on a strong case on a contingency basis (“no win, no pay”) and pre-pay the costs of investigation themselves.
The Nuts and Bolts of Your Claim
To win a civil claim for maintenance negligence in a plane crash, you must establish the following:
- The professional standard of care, based on the facts of your particular case
- The failure by aircraft maintenance personnel to meet the standard of care
- The accident was at least partially caused by the failure to meet the standard of care
- You suffered damages (including grief at the loss of a close relative)
The Standard of Care
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations define the minimum standard of care required to be exercised by aircraft maintenance personnel. Under state personal injury and wrongful death law, however, the standard of care is the degree of care that “would be reasonably expected of [an aircraft mechanic] under similar circumstances”.
What this adds up to is that if you can prove that the aircraft mechanic failed to comply with FAA regulations with respect to aircraft maintenance (through the inspection of aircraft maintenance records and log books, for example), you have proven that the aircraft mechanic failed to exercise his legal duty of care. Since FAA regulations are minimum standards, however, you might be able to prove your claim even if the mechanic complied with every applicable regulation.
Proving maintenance negligence doesn’t automatically establish your claim – you also have to establish that the negligent maintenance actually caused or contributed to the accident. In some cases this is a straightforward matter. In other cases it can get quite complex, requiring a sophisticated knowledge of aircraft mechanics. In such cases, the testimony of an expert witness may be required.
Damages in a plane crash can be immense, especially in the case of a commercial airline crash where hundreds may have died. This raises the specter of a defendant who is unable to pay the judgment against it. A good aviation lawyer will seek to establish the liability of not only the aircraft maintenance provider but also the airline and the aircraft manufacturer (if the facts warrant it), to provide the plaintiff with a way to actually collect a judgment or settlement.
Your aircraft maintenance negligence claim is likely to be complex and difficult to prove. The services of an experienced aviation accident lawyer is a near-necessity throughout the process, regardless of whether you pursue your claim in court or at the bargaining table.