Many people are afraid of flying for fear of an airplane crash, but airplane crashes are much more uncommon than car accidents. When a major airplane crash does occur, however, the outcome can be devastating. Families of victims and survivors may bring a lawsuit against the airline or aircraft. In some cases, it may be appropriate to sue a parts manufacturer. The federal government provides support to the families of those injured in airplane crashes. The primary issue in airplane accident litigation is determining what caused the crash or accident that caused the injuries.
The NTSB, the FBI, the FAA, and independent investigators all may have a hand in determining the cause of a major aircraft crash.
Some common causes of airplane crashes are defective equipment or design, fueling errors, errors by air traffic controllers, negligence in a third party’s selection of a carrier, pilot error, flight service station employee negligence, and faulty repair or maintenance of the airplane. The federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates major aircraft crashes to determine what factors caused an accident. However, the NTSB does not always get to the bottom of what caused an accident or identify all the factors that combined to result in the harm. In some cases, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and independent investigators retained by a plaintiff's attorney will also investigate the cause of the crash.
After a major airplane accident, the federal government must provide assistance to the families of victims of the crash under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 ("the Act"). The same law requires the National Transportation Safety Board to designate a nonprofit entity to coordinate services, such as mental health services and victim identification, for any survivors of the crash and accident victims' families. The airline also has responsibilities under the Act, such as establishing a toll-free telephone line for victims' families, informing families of the death of family members, helping families to travel to the accident location, giving them room and board, and listing all passengers on the flight and telling families before publicizing the list.
When an airplane accident occurs in the United States and involves an American airline, a lawsuit can be brought in United States courts. A plaintiff can recover for medical bills, lost wages, and noneconomic damages. When the airplane accident is international, the Warsaw Convention, an international agreement, and the Montreal Convention, which amended the Warsaw system, may apply.
The Montreal Convention modified the Warsaw system by providing for unlimited liability, providing advance payments, providing the possibility of suing in the passenger's principal place of residence and requiring air carriers to maintain sufficient insurance. Air carriers can be held strictly liable (without a showing of fault) for proven damages of up to 113,100 special drawing rights, which is a mix of currency values established by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) equaling about $138,000 for each United States passenger as of 2003. However, the amount of liability beyond this first tier of strict liability is limited unless an injured passenger can prove "willful misconduct" by the air carrier.
Types of Claims Brought After a Domestic Airplane Accident
Some common types of claims after an airplane accident are negligence claims, products liability claims, and Federal Tort Claims Act violations. Often, there are multiple factors that overlap and combine to cause an accident. In those cases, there may be several appropriate theories of recovery and multiple defendants. Negligence suits are brought when pilot errors, repair errors, or other human errors cause a crash. The plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant did not act as a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have acted. For example, the plaintiff can try to show that a reasonable pilot would not have made the error that caused the crash.
Airplanes are complex machines, and just one part of the airplane being defective can trigger an accident. Products liability claims are brought when there are defects in the equipment, defects in the design, or other airplane structural problems. Unlike negligence claims that require that a plaintiff prove the defendant was careless, these types of claims require a plaintiff to show that a design or manufacturing defect caused victims to die or be injured. Usually, they are strict liability claims.
If you want to bring a products liability action after an airplane accident, you should be aware of a limitation. The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (GARA) bars lawsuits against the manufacturers of certain private airplanes certified by the FAA that have less than 20 seats, when the accident involves an airplane or part that has been in service for 18 years.
The FAA is responsible for air traffic control. A plaintiff can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act when an FAA employee error causes an airplane crash. There are special rules that must be followed to sue a federal governmental agency or its employee.