An aircraft owner loans his plane to a friend. The plane crashes and a passenger is injured. It turns out the crash was caused by the negligence of the aircraft's mechanic. Can the crash victim hold the aircraft owner liable for the mechanic’s faulty work?
This question comes up a lot. In fact, it comes up in almost every case where the mechanic doesn't have adequate insurance to cover the passenger's medical expenses.
Ask the owner’s insurance company whether the owner can be held liable, and they will always say “no.” Their argument is that the owner didn’t perform the work and, in fact, without a mechanic's license was legally prohibited from doing so. The owner trusted the mechanic, as the regulations required him to, and so did nothing wrong. According to the owner’s insurance company, the passenger must look to the mechanic for compensation, and not to the owner.
In California, unlike in some other states, an owner of a machine that can seriously injure someone if not properly maintained is responsible to those injured as a result of faulty maintenance. It doesn’t matter that the owner didn't actually perform the faulty maintenance.
Why does this make sense? Because, according to the Supreme Court's opinion in Maloney v. Rath, it is the owner who decides who the mechanic will be.
the owner selects the [mechanic] and is free to insist upon one who is financially responsible and to demand indemnity of him.
In other words, the injured party had no say in what mechanic did the work, or whether the mechanic carried insurance. But the owner who selected him did. So the accident victim can hold the owner financially responsible, and leave it to the owner to try to obtain reimbursement from his mechanic.
The Maloney case didn’t involve airplanes. It involved a car crash caused by improperly maintained brakes. But the reasoning applies to airplanes too. After all, improper aircraft maintenance is just as dangerous as improper car maintenance. Maybe even more so.
The federal aviation regulations make the owner responsible for maintaining the aircraft in airworthy condition. The owner can’t necessarily avoid that responsibility by hiring a good mechanic. Despite what the insurance company says, the owner may still be on the hook. At least in California.