Commercial aviation accidents are among the most tragic and high profile of all modern disasters. However, there are far more accidents involving privately owned aircraft than those involving commercial jets. The lawsuits that result from airplane crashes are complex and unique. In an airplane crash not involving an airline, or other common carrier, the legal rules are usually very similar to those of an automobile accident. Unlike airline common carriers, which are held to a higher standard of care, owners and operators of private aircraft are required to exercise ordinary care in operating an aircraft. The NTSB reports that in 2004 there were 1,178 small plane-accidents that resulted in 440 fatalities.
U.S. Commercial Airplanes
The United States has made many efforts to ensure safety on commercial flights. Airlines are also taking steps to ensure that planes are in proper working condition, pilots are qualified and that planes do not take off or fly in bad weather conditions. The FAA also continually checks to make sure airlines are following proper safety procedures. However, there are commercial accidents that result in injuries and death. The NTSB reports that in 2005 there were 39 airline accidents, 2 seriously injured passengers and 3 fatalities.
International Airplane Accidents
If an airline crash involves a common carrier, the right to recover damages depends upon whether the flight was domestic (within the United States) or international. International flights and the domestic portions of international flights are covered by two international agreements, the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Protocol. Under these international agreements, the airlines are held strictly liable for injuries to passengers. This means that passengers on international flights and the domestic portions of international flights need not prove negligence in order to recover damages if an airline accident occurs. However, these agreements limit the amount of liability per passenger ($75,000 under the Montreal Protocol) unless the injured party can prove willful misconduct on behalf of the airline.
Because of the $75,000 limit on damages imposed by the Warsaw Convention-Montreal Protocol, injured passengers (or those bringing suit on their behalf) may seek to show that an accident was caused by willful conduct on behalf of the airline, making the liability limits of the Warsaw Convention-Montreal Protocol inapplicable. For example, in the case of the bombing of a Pan American flight over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, a United States federal court held that the $75,000 limit did not apply because the failure of the airline to comply with anti-terrorist security procedures constituted willful misconduct.
Do I have a case?
For cases not involving strict liability proving negligence on the part of employees of the airline, the manufacturer of the aircraft, its component parts or the maintenance crews is difficult, particularly since records, data and the cause of the crash may be inconclusive. In order to prove negligence or product defect, one must undertake an exhaustive review of all factors involved in the accident. There can be many causes of an aircraft accident, though usually the first cause examined is whether there was pilot error. Other causes of aircraft accidents include defective design or manufacture of the aircraft, failure to adequately maintain or repair the aircraft, failure of one or more of the component parts of the aircraft and extreme weather conditions.
If it is determined that a basis for a lawsuit exists, a number of other complex issues then arise, such as:
- What law (federal or state) should be used?
- Where is the best forum for the trial?
- Should lawsuits be filed individually or as a class action?
- Who should be sued (the aircraft manufacturer, operator, or owner; the airport operator; corporate officers; or component part manufacturers)?
- What is the best theory of recovery (strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, statutory provisions)?
- What is the best method of proving damages?
- How should evidence of the crash be preserved?
What can I do?
In all airplane accident cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries.
If you or a loved one have been the victim of an airplane accident, please contact GBM Law at 614-222-4444 / 877-706-6446. Our initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds on your behalf. You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.