1lawflying’s Blog

November 5, 2008

Assessing Who is Liable for your Aviation Injuries

Aviation OverviewsIn most aviation injury cases, an airline is the most likely candidate for assessing liability. The liability of an airline will be determined by examining a multitude of complex Federal Aviation Administration (”FAA”) regulations. These regulations provide uniform standards and operating procedures, as well as industry standards; the airline’s own standards, as reflected in their own manuals; and common-law tort rules of reasonable due care in aviation injury cases.

Liability may also arise from injuries or death to people on the ground and property damage caused by crashing or falling aircraft. As aviation has come of age, the standards applicable to aircraft owners and operators, vis-a-vis persons and property on the ground, have become more like the standards applicable to passengers. Thus, the movement is away from strict liability and toward negligence. The law however, varies among the states.

Private aircraft owners and operators are not held to the same standards as commercial airlines, but they are held to well-defined standards, nevertheless. These are primarily found in the FAA Regulations, but may also be found in state law and the standards of the industry.

Many aviation injury cases are products liability cases. Fault that causes aviation accidents can be both of the design and fabricating kind and can exist on the part of the aircraft manufacturer or a components manufacturer. Establishing liability against a manufacturer for aviation injuries is very difficult and expensive. Very high standards of design and manufacture exist on the part of aircraft and aircraft component manufacturers. The consequences of product failure are very serious to the manufacturer, both in terms of human tragedy and the extremely expensive cost of aircraft. Consequently, the manufacturer’s commitment to excellence is high. Despite the difficulty of prosecuting such a case, practical circumstances make it necessary to look beyond the operator to determine responsibility. Even when the claimant can establish a clear case against the operator, there may be incomplete recovery.

In the private aircraft field quite another problem exists. Liability insurance on the part of the owner or operator of the aircraft may not be sufficient to cover the damages that are sustained in a given aviation accident. Many states have now adopted, as part of their tort reform legislation, statutes permitting a party defendant to point the finger of blame at a nonparty, thereby reducing or discharging altogether that party’s liability to a plaintiff. Such statutes constitute yet another reason why a plaintiff may have no choice but to sue both the operator or carrier and the manufacturer when meritorious claims exist against both.

In the private and commercial aircraft field, independent companies usually perform the aircraft maintenance. They also may need to be joined as defendants when the aviation accident is caused by negligent maintenance or failure to perform required maintenance.

In the United States the Federal Aviation Administration governs the Air Traffic Control System (”ATC”) and controls all air traffic. One of the primary duties of ATC is aircraft separation. As a result, the United States is a frequent defendant in aviation injury cases. In collision accidents, therefore, the United States would normally be a party along with the operators of both aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration has a host of regulations and manuals that provide rules and practices governing many aviation and air traffic control situations. Suits against the United States are governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act (”FTCA”).

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