Aviation and Airplane Accident Damages and Awards

This article will answer frequently asked questions about damages you can be awarded for aviation accidents and injuries, such as from airplane crashes, helicopter crashes or other accidents that occur in the air. It will explain what kind of damages are available, how the process is managed, what courts an injured person or party can sue, and other questions about lawsuits and awards for aviation accidents.

What type of damages may I receive if I’m injured in an aviation accident?

You may be entitled to recover damages for medical expenses, lost earnings, loss of employment or future employment, pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium (if you’re married, the benefits of your “marital relations”) and punitive damages. Each jurisdiction decides what type of damages can be recovered. States also may set limits and may impose “caps” on certain types of damages. An aviation lawyer can advise you as to which jurisdiction you can file your case to make it possible to recover the maximum amount of damages so as to be compensated fairly for your injuries.

Can a third party be held liable for my injuries?

Yes, various third parties can be held liable for injuries suffered by you or your family. Negligence is a common cause of action for liability, such as pilot error, an injury that should not have occurred if the airplane pilot had used an ordinary degree of care. A carrier or airline can also be liable for damages as a result of their negligence in ensuring that adequate safety measures were in place and that there was reasonable and appropriate maintenance of the airplane. An easy example is one where the airplane involved in the accident flew without having a required inspection.

If the pilot of an airplane was negligent and caused an accident, the owner or airline may also be held liable for injuries. The airline would be held to the legal doctrine of “vicarious liability” which means that an employer is responsible for damages to third parties caused by an employee. Manufacturers of defective airplane parts that fail during flight and cause an airplane accident may also be held liable for damages.

Categories of Liabilities in Aviation Accidents

1. Strict Liability

While pilot error may cause some aircraft accidents, liability of the pilot or other human being is usually determined by the existence of negligence – whether the pilot failed to act with reasonably prudent care in handling of the airplane. If an aviation accident was caused due to problems or defects concerning the aircraft or its component parts, the manufacturer of the aircraft or a component part may be liable for damages under the legal theory of strict liability. Strict liability claims against a manufacturer do not require proof that negligence of a person caused the accident. In virtually all states, a victim of an aviation accident can hold a manufacturer or seller of an aircraft or its parts “strictly liable” if it can be proven that a defect in the product was a proximate cause of the injuries suffered. In general, there are three different types of strict liability:

  1. i. Design Defect
    A design defect occurs when the design of a particular product is defective. The entire product line is manufactured according to the manufacturer’s specifications but the product produced is inherently dangerously deficient. For example, the wings of an aircraft are designed to be used in aircraft flying up to altitudes of 3,000 feet. An airplane has a design defect if an airplane, intended to be flown at altitudes of up to 5,000 feet, includes those wings in the manufacture of the airplane. The airplane model is manufactured as intended. But inclusion of these wings and failure to account for altitude limitations makes the design of the plane faulty, inadequate for flying at the higher altitude.
  2. ii. Manufacturing Defect
    If the manufacturer fails to create the product  according to the design specifications, a manufacturing defect may exist. The finished product is an aberration and not identical to properly manufactured products. A manufacturer may be held liable for failing to discover the defect before it was sold. Frequently, lawsuits concerning manufacturing defects include claims that substandard materials were used or that the assembly of a component was faulty.
  3. iii. Failure-to-Warn Defect
    If a manufacturer had a duty to provide an adequate warnings or instructions for use and failed to do so, they may be held to strict liability under this theory.

2. Comparative Liability

Comparative liability in aviation law doles out damages in proportion to the percentage of liability of each responsible party.  For instance, in a case where an airplane crash landed a judge may rule that a pilot is 35% responsible for negligence in flying the airplane and the manufacturer 65% responsible for defective design and operation of the landing gear.

Can the Federal Government be held liable in aviation accidents?

If the accident is the result of a mid air collision with another aircraft, the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) may be held accountable since they regulate the Air Traffic Control System. The FAA is strictly liable for the negligence of its employees.

What is Common Carriers Liability?

Commercial airlines fall under a legal classification of “common carriers” and can be held liable under Common Carrier Liability laws. A common carrier is a business that transports people, goods, or services and offers its services to the general public under license or authority provided by a regulatory body. FAA sets the rules and regulations governing common carrier aircraft, which are more stringent than general aviation laws that concern private carriers.

What is considered “willful misconduct” according to the Warsaw Convention?

The Warsaw Convention is an international convention which regulates liability for international carriage of persons, luggage or goods performed by aircraft for reward.. Under the Warsaw Convention, the court decides whether the actions by a defendant (such as an airplane pilot) that took place constitute “willful misconduct” by a defendant. Actions that would constitute willful misconduct include any of the following:

  • Prior knowledge that an action would most likely result in injury or damage
  • A wanton disregard that an action could cause an accident
  • Intentional failure to discharge a duty related to safety, for example, not checking the operation and safety of the landing gear before take off

Under the Warsaw Convention, where can a lawsuit for damages be filed?

There are only 4 possible places to file a lawsuit under the Warsaw Convention, which only deals with international flights.  Those places are:

  • The country where the airplane ticket was purchased
  • The country of the final destination point for the flight
  • Any country where the airline is incorporated, or
  • The country that is the principle place of business for the airline

What is the “Death on the High Seas Act” and how does it affect aviation lawsuits?

The Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) was first passed in 1920 to govern the amount of damages that widows of seamen could recover when the death of their spouse occurred in international waters. Since the time the DOHSA was passed, the airline industry has successfully been able to use the DOHSA to limit damage award amounts whenever deaths have occurred due to aircraft accidents over international waters. Under this law, families are not able to collect damages if they do not rely on the deceased employee seaman for financial support or if the death occurred more than three miles from the coastline of the United States. The amount of damages is also limited to economic losses (the amount of money made by the seaman, e.g. his/her salary) if the family member(s) relied on the deceased employee for income.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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