Airline crashes are devastating tragedies that typically result in the death of all or nearly all of the passengers and crew aboard the aircraft. Because of this, verdicts and settlements in airline crash cases can be enormous – in 2001, for example, a verdict of nearly half a billion dollars was awarded against Cessna Aircraft Company in a lawsuit filed by three passengers. Winning a large verdict or settlement in an airline crash case, however, is complex.
Causes of Airline Crashes
Airline safety regulations and redundant safety systems are so extensive that in order for a crash to occur, a lot of mistakes have to be made. The multiple causes of most airline crashes can render these cases startlingly complex. Common categories of mishaps that contribute to airline crashes include:
- Pilot error
- Mechanical failures (triggering product liability)
- Air traffic control errors
- Terrorism triggered by inadequate security procedures
- Inadequate safety inspections or procedures
- Inclement weather (calling into question flight decisions)
- Negligent maintenance (failure to execute Airworthiness Directives, for example)
- Violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations
- Flying over war zones
Wrongful Death Laws
Since airline crashes are usually fatal, the legal basis for an airline crash that occurs in the United States is usually wrongful death law. Although wrongful death law varies somewhat from state to state, its ultimate purpose is always the same – to compensate close relatives and financial dependents of the victim for both economic damages and non-economic damages such as grief and anguish.
In a nutshell, to win a wrongful death lawsuit you must prove that the defendant’s conduct was wrongful (a negligent act or failure to act), that the wrongful conduct caused or contributed to the accident, and that the accident victim was killed as a result. If the accident victim survived, he can pursue a personal injury claim instead.
Lawsuits vs. Settlements
Although airline crash claims are almost always settled out of court, this doesn’t mean that airline crash law is unimportant, because one of the best ways to pressure the defendant into a settlement is to demonstrate that you should win in court based on the strength of your case. Another factor that drives airlines or other corporate defendants to settle is the fear of bad publicity (appearing callous, careless, incompetent or unconcerned with passenger well-being). Since in some cases you must actually file a lawsuit to motivate the defendant to settle on reasonable terms, it is important to work with your lawyer to start preparing for a lawsuit before you even approach the settlement table.
Multiple Defendants/Joint and Several Liability
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or an investigator hired by the plaintiff might reveal that several parties are to blame for an airline crash – the airline, an air traffic controller and a manufacturer of aircraft equipment, for example. It is possible to sue all of these parties and have fault apportioned among them. Depending on which state law applies, you might even be entitled to demand 100 percent of the amount of your verdict from any one of the defendants. The prospect of this type of joint liability can be exploited by the plaintiff’s lawyer to pressure defendants into offering a generous settlements.