Here are six ways an aircraft owner can be found liable even if he was not on board when the plane crashed:
- Vicarious liability for acts of permissive user. In many states, an aircraft owner is liable by statute for any injury caused by a pilot who was flying the aircraft with the owner's permission. The owner need not have done anything wrong -- the owner's liability is automatic. But that liability is generally capped. For example, in California, the aircraft owner is automatically liable for death or injury resulting from the pilot's negligence, but that liability is limited to $15,000 per person killed or injured, up to a total of $30,000.
- Liability as Partner or Joint Venturer. In some circumstances, if the pilot was the owner's partner or was engaged with the owner in a joint venture, the owner can be held fully responsible for any accident caused by the pilot's negligence.
- Owner's negligent conduct. Of course, if the aircraft owner was himself negligent, he may be held liable for the accident, once again without regard to any cap. For example, if the owner performed maintenance on the aircraft (as permitted by FAA regulations), but didn't perform it properly, the owner can be held fully responsible for any accident that results. Even if the owner never touches the aircraft, he might still be held responsible if he makes unreasonable maintenance decisions that, though permitted by FAA regulation, were not those that a reasonably careful owner would have made. One such maintenance decision might be running the aircraft past TBO.
- Non-delegable duty. Mechanics are typically independent contractors. Generally, we aren't responsible for their negligence. But the federal aviation regulations make the owner of an aircraft primarily responsible for its airworthiness, That means the owner may be held responsible even when the accident was solely the mechanic's fault.
- Negligent entrustment. An owner can be held liable for an accident if he allows a pilot to use an aircraft when he knows the pilot isn't competent to complete the planned flight safety. For example, an owner may be held liable to those injured for allowing a pilot to fly to a high-density altitude airport if that pilot hasn't had a high-density altitude checkout. In the negligent entrustment context, the "permissive user" liability caps don't apply.
- As the manufacturer of an amateur build aircraft. Needless to say, if the owner was the builder of the aircraft that is involved in the accident, he can expect to be held liable, at least if the accident was the result of faulty workmanship.