An Airline's Liability for In-flight Injuries to International Travelers

Domestic travelers can hold the airline liable only if their injuries are caused by the airline’s negligence. But if the passenger is traveling internationally, then treaties called the Montreal and Warsaw Conventions apply. Under the Conventions, whether the airline was negligent is for the most part irrelevant. An airline is responsible only if the passenger’s injury was caused by an “accident.” So, for an international traveler, the key question is what, exactly, qualifies as an “accident.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “accident” to mean “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.” Certainly, an aircraft running off the end of the runway would qualify as an accident. But there are plenty of injury-producing events which present more difficult questions.

Here’s what the courts have said:

  • Accident: A passenger is injured when a fellow passenger opens an overhead bin and liquor bottles fall out.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger slips and falls on plastic bag left in aisle (reasoning: after long flight, it would not be “unusual” to encounter trash in the aisle).
  • Accident: A passenger burned by tea when tea spilled from tray table because the passenger seated directly in front of the injured passenger caused a “jolt” that upset the tray table.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger falls while trying to walk up a broken escalator.
  • Accident: A passenger seated near the smoking section asks to be moved, the flight attendant refuses, the passenger has an asthma attack and dies.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger dies from an airline-induced blood clot.
  • Not an Accident: One passenger falls on and breaks the arm of another passenger (reasoning: the passenger decision to try to climb over his fellow passenger not related to the aircraft’s operation.)

More at Chris Cotter’s excellent article: Recent Case Law Addressing Three Contentious Issues in the Montreal Convention.

Reno Air Race Lawsuits and the Assumption of Risk Defense

There are obvious dangers inherent in events such as the Reno Air Races. The victims of the disaster were undoubtedly aware of those dangers and attended the event anyway. Does that mean they should not be able to file lawsuits to obtain compensation for their loss? 

Not at all.

Granted, Life is Full of Risks

There are risks involved in most everything. We take a chance every time we cross the street. But it’s nonetheless reasonable for us to believe we will be safe when we are in the crosswalk. When we use the crosswalk, we are where we are supposed to be.

If an SUV hits someone in the crosswalk, we may all agree it was “just an accident.” Yet, we require the driver to compensate the pedestrian for his injuries. If the driver couldn’t see the pedestrian because the crosswalk was poorly designed, we might require the city to compensate the pedestrian. In either case, we don’t tell the pedestrian that he is out of luck because he assumed the risks of getting hit by a car.

It doesn’t matter that the driver had a very good driving record up to that point in time. While we don’t punish those responsible for an accident, we do hold them accountable and require them to compensate the person who, through no fault of their own, is seriously hurt.

The victims at Reno undoubtedly understood that there were risks associated with the Air Races. But they were exactly where they were supposed to be. Sure, the crash was an accident. But that doesn’t mean whoever is responsible for the injuries – whether that is a mechanic or a course designer -- shouldn’t compensate the victims for their losses.

The Race Sponsors Were Supposed to Provide Patrons with a Safe Viewing Area

Some say that Nevada law lets sponsors off the hook for injuries to spectators.  And it's true that, in Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entertainment, the Nevada Supreme Court said that a baseball stadium was not responsible for serious injuries a fan sustained when she was struck by a foul ball. But in that case, the fan was not in the viewing area. Had the fan been injured in a viewing area, the result might have been different. That’s because the court recognized that a ballpark has a duty to provide the patrons with at least some designated safe seating.

Once a stadium owner or operator complies with the rule's requirements by providing sufficient protected seating, the owner or operator has satisfied the legal duty of protection owed to its patrons.

The Reno Air Race victims were in the designated viewing area. They were exactly wReno Air Race Tickethere they were supposed to be. But it appears that the sponsors failed to ensure that the area was safe. Turner v. Mandalay would thus seem to support the victims’ claims for compensation, not undercut it.  

The Language on the Ticket Is Not a Contract

A reader of this post noted that, according to the tickets sold for the event, the spectators voluntarily assumed all the risks and released the event sponsors from liability for any injuries.  Isn’t that the end of the matter?

No.

Sure, a spectator can, by contract, agree ahead of time not to sue if he is injured, even if the person who caused the injury was negligent. But for there to be a contract, there has to be an agreement. If the spectator actually signed something, then that would be one thing. Without the victim’s signature, the fine print on the ticket won’t be binding on anyone. 

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Reno Crash Victims' Lawsuits Against the FAA Will Face Hurdles

The FAA was supposed to protect the Reno Air Race spectators by, among other things, assuring that the race course design was safe. It failed to do so. Do the victims have a right to bring a lawsuit against the FAA?

Sovereign Immunity.

The FAA or, more accurately, the United States government can be sued just like any other individual, when it’s negligence contributes to a citizen’s injury or death. There are some important limitations, however. For example, the FAA cannot be sued if it’s employee -- in committing the negligent act -- was acting within his discretion. Rather, the “Discretionary Function Exception" protects the government from liability in those circumstances. The government can, however, be sued when someone is injured or killed as a result of an FAA employee’s failure to follow the FAA’s own rules. The theory is that, when in that circumstance, the employee had no “discretion.” If he was supposed to follow rules, and didn’t, and as a result someone is killed or injured, the government is liable.

FAA’s Involvement in the Reno Air Races.

The FAA approved the pilots, the planes, and the design of the course. For purposes of illustration, let’s discuss only the design of the course. For an FAA employee to approve a race course, the course design must meet certain requirements. FAA Order 8900.1 spells those out in detail. Some of the math involved is set forth on the right. The math is a bit complicated. But in short, the requirements are supposed to ensure that a plane is never pointed at the crowd, and to otherwise keep the spectators safe if something goes wrong with a plane or a pilot.

If a proposed course design didn’t comply with the requirements set forth in Order 8900.1, and an FAA employee approved it nonetheless, the FAA is potentially liable. That’s because the employee has no discretion to approve a course that doesn't comply with the rules. If a course doesn't comply with the rules, the FAA employee is supposed to reject it.

What if the course design complied with the requirements of Order 8900.1, but the victims prove that the Order’s requirements were too lax to protect the public from harm, and that they should have been more stringent? Then the victims will have a much harder time suing the government. Deciding what the rules should be is a task likely within the FAA’s discretion. Thus, the government would assert the “discretionary function” defense to the victims’ lawsuit.

 Reno Race Course Design

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When A Helicopter Hits An Offshore Oil Platform And Then Crashes Into The Ocean

A helicopter carrying workers to an oil rig attempts to land on the rig’s platform. The helicopter hits something on the rig, spins out of control, and crashes into the sea. All the helicopter's occupants are killed.Helicopter Approaching Oil Rig Platform 

Sadly, with more than 5000 oil rigs operating off the US shores, oil rig-related helicopter crashes are a relatively common occurrence.

Even though the accidents are almost always the result of someone’s negligence, it's often unclear what compensation, if any, the victims’ families will be entitled to.  That's because there is little agreement as to what law applies to helicopter accidents on oil rigs. 

Since there is no governing "helicopter accident law," some courts look to the law of admiralty.  Reasoning that the deaths occur offshore, they apply the Death on the High Seas Act. The Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, generally allows the victims' families “pecuniary damages” only.  Pecuniary damages include lost wages and funeral expenses. Except in certain circumstances, no compensation is allowed for the loss of the victim's care, comfort and emotional support, or his pre-impact pain and suffering. When DOHSA applies, it can mean the family members get no compensation at all.

Most oil rigs are located on the "outer continental shelf." Because of that, some courts have ruled that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs. Unlike DOHSA, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ("OCSLA") entitles the victims' families to all the damages available under the wrongful death statute of the nearby state. That usually includes compensation for the loss of the victim's care, comfort and affection.

In Alleman v. Omni Energy Services Corp, a helicopter pilot landed on an oil platform, then tried to lift off and reposition the helicopter to make it easier for the passengers to exit.  When he did, the helicopter's main rotors struck a boat landing that had been improperly stored near the helipad.  The helicopter spun across the pad, momentarily came to rest on the edge of the pad, and then fell over the side of the rig and into the Gulf of Mexico below.  One passenger died.

The court ruled ruled that OSCLA applied, not the more restrictive DOHSA.

This accident "actually occurred" on the oil platform itself and OSCLA therefore applies. It does not impact our analysis that Hollier fell into the sea after the accident occurred on the platform. . . .Congress did not intend . . . that these island-platforms be within admiralty’s jurisdiction. 

Texas lawyer Ryan Hackney  questions the court's reasoning:

The [opinion] takes it as self-evident that the accident “actually occurred” when the helicopter’s tail rotor made impact with the boat landing on the platform. From Hollier's perspective, however, the more significant impact was surely the one when his helicopter crashed into the unforgiving water of the Gulf of Mexico. To put it bluntly, bumping your tail rotor might ruin your day, but crashing your helicopter into the high seas will ruin your whole week.

It was the main rotor that struck the landing, not the tail rotor.  But, putting that aside, Hackney's  thorough analysis of the Alleman opinion and the law bearing on helicopter crashes on oil rigs is excellent and worth a read for anyone wrestling with the topic.

As Hackney's analysis points out, the law that applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs is confused.  In fact, there is sufficient disagreement among the courts concerning OCSLA's application that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear argument in October in Pacific Operator Offshore v. Valladolid.  The case doesn't involve a helicopter crash.  But it will tee up issues of when OCSLA applies to accidents injuring rig workers and when it does not.  

Government Contractor Defense Protects Helicopter Manufacturer

The Chinook helicopter was flying in Afghanistan.  Without warning, one of the helicopter's two engines flamed out.  The helicopter crashed.  Eight service personnel were killed and fourteen were severely injured.

The victims and their families sued the helicopter's various manufacturers, including Boeing, Honeywell and Goodrich.  They claimed that the helicopter's engine quit because of a defect in the design of the electronics that control the fuel flow to the engine. 

The Army agreed.  It's investigation concluded that the engine failed because of problems with the the engine's FADEC (Full Authority Digital Electronic Control) and DECU (Digital Electronic Control Unit). 

A federal court recognized that "the Chinook's engine obviously did not perform like it was supposed to."  Nonetheless, it tossed the case out of court, ruling that the manufacturers were protected from liability by the Government Contractor Defense.  That defense immunizes manufacturers from liability for defective products causing injury or death in those cases where the government approved the design that ended up being faulty.

The victims argued that the government didn't really approve the defendants' defective design, because the contract documents left the details of the design to the manufacturers' discretion. The contract documents provided:

Specific implementations used to describe the functional requirements throughout this document are for informational understanding only. Actual implementations used to meet these requirements will be at the discretion of the designer unless specifically stated otherwise.

The court rejected the argument.  Though the clause left some of the details to the manufacturers,  the government nonetheless approved the design.

The victims also argued that the manufacturers should have included in the helicopter's Operator's Manual a warning about the problems with the helicopter's design, since they were well aware of other failures that had resulted in accidents.  The court rejected that argument too, because the military had approved the manual's wording.

Military personnel were killed or injured, not by enemy fire, but by a defectively designed product that was manufactured by private industry for profit.  Yet, the manufacturers are permitted to turn their backs, and walk away,

The case is Getz v. Boeing.

Bill Seeks to Immunize Volunteer Pilot Organizations from Liability for Injury to Passengers

Senator Leahy of Vermont is pushing for a law that would insulate volunteer pilot organizations (such as Angel Flight West) from liability for injury the organization's pilots cause to its passengers. If the bill passes, it means that those injured by the negligence of an organization's pilot would have no recourse against the organization. Rather, the passenger would be limited to seeking compensation against the pilot -- regardless of how minimal the pilot's insurance.Angel flight

The trouble is that those who decide to fly with a charitable organization usually do so because they are impressed by the organization, not by the pilot. The passengers don't select the pilot who, in some cases, they may not even meet the pilot until arriving at the airport for the flight. They have no way of checking out the pilot's qualifications or competence level. Instead, they trust the organization to do that.

It doesn't seem right for an organization to turn its back on an injured passenger or his family after an accident. Yet, that's what the bill would allow.  

The text of the proposed law is as follows: 

Liability Protection for Volunteer Pilot Nonprofit Organizations

A volunteer pilot nonprofit organization that flies for public benefit, the staff, mission coordinators, officers, and directors (whether volunteer or otherwise) of such nonprofit organization shall not be liable for harm caused to any person by a volunteer of such nonprofit organization while such volunteer--


(A) is operating an aircraft in furtherance of the purpose of such nonprofit organization;
(B) is properly licensed for the operation of such aircraft; and
(C) has certified to such nonprofit organization that such volunteer has insurance covering the volunteer's operation of such aircraft."

Death on the High Seas Act: Federal Court Questions the Powers of the President

The Death on the High Seas Act applies to certain airplane and helicopter crashes as well as to shipwrecks.  The Act limits the claims that family members can bring. For example, in most cases the Death on the High Seas Act does not allow a parent to sueDeath on the High Seas Act for the loss of a child.  And though a wife can sue for the death of her husband, she can recover only lost financial support.  No compensation is allowed for the loss of the husband's love and affection.

Everyone agrees that DOHSA never applies to crashes within 3 miles from the US shoreline, and that it always applies to certain crashes more than 12 miles from shore.  The issue is whether it applies to crashes between 3 miles and 12 miles from shore. 

That question came up after the TWA Flight 800 disaster, because the Boeing 747 crashed about 8 miles from shore. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the "High Seas" means "international waters."  So DOHSA applies to crashes between 3 and 12 miles from shore only if the particular waters are "international." 

But just before the TWA Flight 800 accident, President Reagan proclaimed that all waters within 12 miles from a US shoreline are US waters, not international waters.  The court ruled that the presidential proclamation made the analysis easy.  The Death on the High Seas Act applies only to crashes beyond 12 miles from shore, and so did not prevent the families of Flight 800 from suing.

Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit disagreed.  A Marine helicopter crashed 9.5 miles from the shore of Catalina Island, killing three servicemen.  The familes sued Sikorsky, the helicopter's manufacturer, as well as those who built some of the helicopter's component parts.  But the court ruled that because the crash happened more than three miles from shore, DOHSA applied, and their lawsuit should be dimissed. 

We conclude that DOHSA applies to all waters beyond three nautical miles from United States shores.  The helicopter crash in this case is governed by DOHSA's remedial scheme."

As for the effect of President Reagan's proclamation?

Though we do not decide the matter, we remain doubtful that the President would have the authority to alter the remedial scheme set forth in DOHSA through a proclamation."

The case is Helman v. Alcoa Global Fasteners. Because the two federal courts have now reached opposite conclusions, the matter might be headed to the US Supreme Court.  That will be interesting.  Dissenting from the Second Circuit's opinion in the TWA Flight 800 case was then-Judge Sotomayor who now, of course, sits on the Supreme Court. 

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Limits Aviation Lawsuits

It used to be impossible for an American injured by a foreign government to sue that government in the US. If the American tried, the foreign government could assert “sovereign immunity” as a complete defense.  But now the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act sets forth a few important exceptions to that immunity.  For example, a victim can sue the foreign government if the injury was caused by that government's "commercial activity" in the United States.

What does this have to do with aviation law?  Many foreign airlines are owned or controlled by foreign governments. Suing those airlines -- even for injuries that occur on US soil -- is considered the same as suing the foreign "sovereign." Until relatively recently, it wasn't allowed at all.

Some of the foreign airlines that have asserted the sovereign immunity Queen On Trial defense include:

  • South African Airways 
  • Lufthansa
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Air France
  • Lot Polish Airlines
  • Air Afrique
  • Austrian Airlines

Many aviation manufacturers are also owned or controlled by foreign governments. Were it not for the "commercial activity" exception, they too would be completely immune from suit.  Some of those manufacturers that have been treated as foreign sovereigns include:

  • Augusta S.p.A
  • Embraer
  • Airbus
  • Siai Marchetti

Though the "commercial activity" exception now allows the victim to sue, the foreign sovereign (or the airline or manufacturer it controls) is still entitled to special protections.  First, the "sovereign" is entitled to have the case heard in a federal court, rather than a state court.  Next, the case must be heard by a judge, not a jury.  And finally, regardless of how bad the sovereign's conduct, no punitive damages are allowed.

Limited Liability Companies May Protect Aircraft Owners

It’s not uncommon for three or four pilots to share ownership of an aircraft. For years, owning an aircraft as “partners” was the norm. That form of ownership, however, carries with it some liability considerations.

  • “Partners” can generally be held individually liable for one another’s debts, including debts arising from one another’s negligence. In other words, if one partner ’s piloting mistake kills or injures a passenger, the other partners may in some cases be held accountable to the victim or the victim’s family.
  • Aircraft owners are responsible for maintaining their aircraft properly. If one of the partnership’s maintenance decisions – such as an ill-considered decision to run past TBO – leads to an accident, each partner could be held responsible for that as well.
  • Even assuming the partnership made all the right maintenance decisions, the partnership may still be held responsible for the negligence of the mechanic. More on that here. If the partnership is liable, each of the individual partners may be liable as well.

Many pilots seeking to share an airplane now form a limited liability corporation. They arrange it so that the corporation, and not the individual pilots, own the aircraft. The pilots own shares in the corporation only. Because the pilots do not themselves own the aircraft, they avoid some of the liability that comes with aircraft ownership generally and with the partnership relationship in particular.

But here’s where people often get confused: no form of ownership allows the pilot who is flying the aircraft to avoid responsibility for his own negligence. If a pilot error kills or injures someone, that pilot may be held accountable to the victim or his family regardless of whether the aircraft is owned by his partnership or by his limited liability corporation.

Lidle v. Cirrus: Claim Not "Junk Science"

When Cory Lidle's widow sued Cirrus Design, it caused a bit of an uproar in the aviation community.  Her suit alleges that it was a defect in the aircraft's flight controls that caused the Cirrus SR-20 to slam into a Manhattan hi-rise.  That claim led many to call the suit frivolous.  After all, the NTSB determined the accident was caused by pilot error, plain and simple. Right?

Cirrus asked the federal judge who is hearing the case to toss it out as being based on "junk science." Cirrus argued that under legal precedent known as Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, the judge must act as a "gatekeeper."  That means she must review the expert

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When the Defective Part is Made of Paper: Aircraft Manuals and GARA

A passenger injured in an aircraft accident can't sue the aircraft manufacturer if the part that caused the crash is older than 18 years. Any such suit would be barred by the General Aviation Revitalization Act, or GARA.

What if the accident was caused by a mistake in one of the aircraft's manuals rather than a defect in the aircraft itself?  If the manual is older than 18 years, does GARA protect the manufacturer from liability for its error? 

It depends.  The manufacturer is off the hook if the manual is properly considered a "part" of the aircraft.  Some manuals are. Some aren't.

A flight manual (sometimes called a "pilot's operating handbook" or "flight handbook") is properly considered "part" of the aircraft, and so GARA protects the manufacturer. For example, in Caldwell v. Enstrom Helicopters, the pilot's family blamed a helicopter crash on the flight manual's failure to say that the last two gallons of fuel in the helicopter were unusable.  As a result, the pilot believed he had sufficient fuel but in fact did not.  He crashed just minutes from his destination.

The Caldwell court said that Twin Bonanza Flight Manualmanufacturers are required by regulation to provide a flight manual when it delivers the aircraft to the customer.  The manual must be carried in the aircraft at all times thereafter. Therefore, the manual was properly considered to be an aircraft "part."  Because the manual at issue was more than 18 years old, GARA applied to protect the manufacturer from liability for any errors. 

But the situation is different when the manual is a maintenance manual. A manufacturer can sell an aircraft without providing to the buyer a maintenance manual.  Thus maintenance manuals, unlike flight manuals, are not a "part " of the aircraft, and GARA doesn't apply. At least according to Rogers v. Bell Helicopters Textron, a case decided earlier this month by a California appellate court. 

In Rogers, the pilot claimed the accident resulted from faulty instructions in a maintenance manual for balancing the helicopter's tail rotor. The court ruled that, despite the fact that the manual was more than 18 years, GARA didn't apply and so the pilot was entitled to sue.  

Unlike a flight manual that is unique to the aircraft, used by the pilot, and necessary to operate the aircraft, a maintenance manual applies to different aircraft models, is used by the mechanic, and only for troubleshooting and repairing the aircraft.

According to Rogers,, GARA won't protect a manufacturer from liability for mistakes in its maintenance manuals, regardless of how old the manuals are. 

The plaintiff in Rogers was represented by Louis Franecke of San Rafael. 

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) and Aviation Accidents

The Death on the High Seas Act was originally intended to apply to shipwrecks and other shipping accidents in international waters.  Though a law of admiralty, DOHSHigh Seas and Air France Flight 447A's wording is broad enough to cover any accident, not just shipping accidents. Therefore, it applies with equal force to aviation accidents occurring on the high seas.

The "high seas" are those international waters more than 12 nautical miles from the shore of the United States or one of its islands.  After an aviation accident, it doesn't matter whether the passenger's family sues the responsible airline under the Warsaw or Montreal conventions, a mechanic for negligence, or a manufacturer for a defectively designed product. If the accident happened on or over the "high seas," those responsible for the

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Feres Doctrine Protects U.S. Military From Lawsuits

The Federal Tort Claims Act allows citizens who have been injured by the federal government to sue the United States.  But there's an important exception.  No suit against the government is allowed when the victim is a service member injured by the negligence of the United States military. 

The rule protecting the military is called the Feres Doctrine.  In aviation accident cases, the doctrine bars service Marine Aboard Sea Knight Helicoptermembers from suing the government regardless of whether the crash was caused by the negligence of a military mechanic, air traffic controller, dispatcher or pilot.

Not surprisingly, the Feres Doctrine is controversial.  It allows the military to avoid responsibility for not just simple negligence, but for gross negligence as well.  Because of its unfairness, Congress has repeatedly been asked to abolish the rule, or at least limit it.  (Large pdf of Congressional Hearing here.)  But the Feres Doctrine remains the law.  As long as the victim was an "active" service member, and the injury or death was "incident to service," the military is immune from suit.  

That doesn't mean that injured soldiers or their families cannot sue others who may have contributed to a military aircraft accident.  For example, if a defect in the design of the aircraft contributed to the crash or to the injuries the crew member received, the crew member can still sue the aircraft's manufacturer. The aircraft manufacturer may be able to assert defenses of its own, such as the "government contractor defense," but not the Feres Doctrine.

The military prepares an investigative report after every accident involving one of its aircraft.  The report focuses on the military's role in the accident.  It seldom addresses whether a manufacturer or other civilian contractor may have been at fault. In fact, as discussed in this article concerning a military helicopter crash off the California coast, sometimes the report provides no answers at all.  Families will often need to enlist an aviation accident attorney to conduct an investigation on their behalf.  The attorney may need to file suit against the manufacturers just to obtain access to the evidence bearing on who, other than the military, may be responsible for a service member's injury or death.    

Avoiding the Empty Chair Defense

In the early stages of a lawsuit, it is often unclear which of two different defendants is responsible for an aviation accident.  But as the case progresses, evidence may point to one defendant over another.  When that happens, it may seem like a good idea for the victim to settle with (or dismiss from the lawsuit) the defendant whose liability appears tenuous, andEmpty Chair to proceed to trial against the defendant who appears blameworthy.  Experienced aviation lawyers think carefully, however, before following that course, for fear of creating an "empty chair" in the courtroom.

Let's say that, at the outset of the case, it is unclear whether the aircraft crash was caused by the defective design of a part (for which the aircraft manufacturer would be responsible), or negligent maintenance (for which the aviation mechanic would be responsible).  But let's say that, as the suit progresses, evidence is uncovered indicating that the responsibility should rightfully lie with the manufacturer.  It may seem like good sense to dismiss the mechanic from the lawsuit and proceed to trial against only the manufacturer.  Doing so, however, may allow the manufacturer to argue to the jury that the one truly responsible for the accident is someone who is not present in the courtroom -- someone who should be seated in the "empty chair," but whom the victim decided not to bring into court. 

This strategy is called "blaming the empty chair."  Of course, the "empty chair" cannot defend itself.  Thus, if allowed to employ this tactic, the wrongdoer can sometimes escape liability altogether. 

Manufacturers of Military Aircraft and the Government Contractor Defense

A crew member injured by an aircraft's defective design may sue to hold the aircraft manufactuSuper Stallion Helicopterrer accountable.  At least he can when the aircraft involved in the accident was a civilian aircraft. If, however, the airplane or helicopter was a military aircraft, then the rules change.

A manufacturer who built an aircraft specifically for the military may be able to avoid liability to those injured by the aircraft's design by asserting the "government contractor defense."  That defense provides the manufacturer complete immunity from lawsuits. But the Supreme Court ruled in Boyle v.United Technologies that a manufacturer can take advantage of that defense only if it can prove all of the following things:

  1. That the US government specifically required or approved the design feature that caused the accident or injury; 
  2. That what the manufacturer built conformed to the specifications that the government approved, and
  3. That the manufacturer warned the government about any dangers in the design that the manufacturer knew about and that the government didn't.

If the manufacturer fails to prove all three of these things, then it may be sued just as a manufacturer of a civilian aircraft, and an injured crewmember is entitled to hold it accountable for any injuries the aircraft's design caused him.  

Workers' Compensation as the Exclusive Remedy for an Injured Crew Member or Pilot

Generally, crew members may not sue their employers for injuries sustained on the job. Even where the crew member's injury was caused by the negligence  of the employer or one of the crew member's co-employees, the crew member's sole remedy against his employer is to pursue a workers' compensation case. This is known as the "exclusive remedy rule."  The trouble with the exclusive remedy rule is that worker's compensation benefits are limited and are seldom adequate to compensate a crew member or the crew member's family for the injuries suffered in an aviation accident.  

Fortunately, the exclusive remedy rule does not prevent a crew member from suing third parties who caused or contributed to the injury.  Therefore, a crew member injured in an aviation accident may sue the aircraft manufacturer if the accident was caused by a defect in the design or manufacture of the aircraft.  Similarly, where the accident was caused by the negligence of a mechanic who worked on the aircraft, the crew member may sue the mechanic provided, of course, that the mechanic was not one of the crew member's co-employees. 

There are few exceptions to the "exclusive remedy" rule.  For example, a crew member can sue the employer who caused his injuries where:

  • The employer didn't maintain workers compensation insurance;
  • The injury was the result of certain types of intentional wrongdoing on the employer's part; or
  • The crew member was injured by a product or part that the employer manufactured.

The "exclusive remedy" rule also prevents the crew member from suing any co-worker who caused the accident.  Again, there are a few exceptions for unusual situations. For example, a crew member may sue his co-worker where the co-worker’s actions were malicious and with an intent to cause injury, or when the co-worker was intoxicated. 

Pre-Accident Waivers of Liability

Are written waivers of liability worth the paper they are written on?  The answer, of course, is that it depends.  In California, a waiver that a passenger signs before stepping into an aircraft is enforceable, as long as it meets certain rules.  For example:Waiver

  • The waiver language must be clear and conspicuous to the person signing away his rights---not buried in fine print.
  • A passenger cannot waive liability for injuries resulting from another's recklessness. 
  • A waiver will not release an employer from liability to an employee for risks that are inherent in the employee's job.
  • A passenger cannot waive liability for injuries resulting from an aircraft's defective design or manufacture.  

Despite the rules, a waiver can be written in such a way that it will, in most situations, prevent a passenger from obtaining compensation for injuries received in an aviation accident caused by another's negligence.  In fact, a well-written release can prevent not just the passenger who signed it from suing, but in the event of the passenger's death, his heirs as well.   But the release must be properly drafted. The language used is critical.  Many releases look "official" but simply do not pass muster.

Statutes of Limitation in Aviation Accident Cases

The victim of an airplane or helicopter accident must act on his rights or lose them forever.  That means the victim must file a lawsuit by the appropriate deadline.  In some cases, the victim must first file a special claim form with the right governmental agency.  If he fails to do so on time, or files it with the wrong agency, he willl not be permitted to later sue the government agency that is responsible for his injuries.

The deadlines vary according to the type of claim as well as other factors. A victim should consult an aviation lawyer to determine which deadline applies.  Some of the more common deadlines that may apply in California cases:

  • Cases involving International Air Travel (Warsaw and Montreal Conventions)  - Lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of the aircraft's arrival (or expected arrival) at the destination.
  • Cases against California Governmental Entities (such as those involving municipal airports) - Victim must file a special governmental Claim Form (pdf) within 6 months of accident or no lawsuit is thereafter allowed; lawsuit must be filed no later than 6 months after the governmental agency rejects the claim.
  • Cases alleging negligence or products liability (including design defect)  - Lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of accident.
  • Cases against the Federal Government (such as those involving weather reporting or air traffic control errors) - Victim must file a special Federal Tort Claims Act Claim Form (pdf)  within 2 years of accident or injury; suit must be filed no later than 6 months after government rejects the claim.
  • Cases against EMS Helicopter/Air Ambulance Operators, if MICRA applies - Lawuit must be filed within 3 years of accident; other pre-filing requirements may apply.  Otherwise, lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of accident.
  • Claims against the estate of someone who caused the accident but who has since died are often subject to shorter statutes of limitations than set forth above.  Some deadlines are as short as 6 months.

Additional deadline:

  • Cases against aircraft manufacturer - (including those alleging design defect) -  No lawsuit allowed if accident occurred more than 18 years after date of manufacturer of aircraft of part causing the injury, subject to certain exceptions set forth in the General Aviation Revitalization Act

Some deadlines are extended under special circumstances, such as when the victim is a child.  On the other hand, some deadlines, like the 2- year Warsaw Convention deadline, are not extended for any reason.

Aircraft Maintenance Manuals and the Mechanic's Liability

Maintenance manuals tell the mechanic when to perform an inspection or service, and how to perform it.  Many mechanics believe that the regulations require them to follow the book exactly.Aircraft Mechanic But in an excellent column on this murky subject, mechanic and aviation author Mike Busch sums up the regulatory requirements nicely:

The manufacturer's “how-to” instructions are compulsory, but the manufacturer’s “when-to” instructions are not.

Let's say, for example, that the manual requires the aircraft’s spark plugs to be removed and regapped every 100 hours. If a mechanic decides to service the aircraft’s spark plugs, he must do it exactly as instructed in the aircraft manual. The regulations, however, do not require the mechanic to follow the manufacturer's instructions at all concerning when or how often to service the plugs, regardless of how much time the engine has accumulated. As Busch explains:

No manufacturer can mandate any maintenance requirement on a part 91 aircraft owner; only the FAA can do so.

There is another part of the story, however, that Busch's column doesn't address. The FAA regulations are bare minimum requirements only.  If an accident occurs because the mechanic failed to comply with the manufacturer’s recommendations, questions can arise as to whether the mechanic was negligent – that is, not reasonably careful -- and thus liable to those injured as a result.  A jury may conclude that, though the regulations didn't require him to, a reasonably careful mechanic would have followed the manufacturer's recommendations anyway.  After all, does a reasonably careful mechanic believe he knows better than the manufacturer? 

FAA To Allow Boeing To Self-Certify Its Aircraft Designs

Aviation manufacturers have long argued that victims should not be permitted to sue for aircraft design defects because, before any manufacturer's aircraft leaves the ground, its design has to be approved and certified by the FAA. If the aircraft's design is good enough for the FAA's engineers, they argue, it should be good enough for the court system.  Judges and juries should not be permitted to second guess the FAA.

Aviation attorneys representing victims of air crashes take a different position.  They argue that the FAA "approval" process is not really an independent safety review of an aircraft's design at all.  FAA Certification ProcessRather, the FAA certifies aircraft based largely on the say-so of engineers who, though designated by the FAA, are in fact employees of the manufacturer seeking the certification. The issue of whether an aircraft's design is defective is thus appropriately left to the judgment of an independent jury. In short, the fact that the FAA certified a design doesn't really mean all that much

Now FAA certification of an aircraft's design will mean even less -- at least with regard to Boeing aircraft.  That's because the the FAA will drop out of the certification process completely for certain Boeing products.  Beginning August 31, the FAA will allow Boeing to self-certify its designs. The FAA will not even do the rubber stamping -- Boeing employees will do that too. According to the Seattle Times

The new system increases the authority of the in-house inspectors directly managed by Boeing, allowing them to review new designs, oversee testing to ensure the products meet all applicable standards, and sign off on certification

Suing the United States Government for an Air Traffic Controller's Negligence

Air traffic controllers work within the guidelines set forth in the Controller's Handbook (pdf), which they often call "the Bible."  The Handbook is hundreds of pages long, and controllers must follow it to the letter.  If they deviate and an accident results, the Federal Tort Claims Act permits the victim to sue the FAA for negligence. 

Sometimes, the Handbook doesn't cover a particular air traffic situation. In those cases, the controller is supposed to simply use his best judgment.  But this would seem to present a problem for the victim of the controller's error.  That's because one of the Federal Tort Claims Act's most important limitations is the "Discretionary Function Exception."FAA Control Tower The Discretionary Function Exception states that a victim can’t sue the federal government for bad decisions that the government left to the federal employee's best judgment.  Regardless of how careless the employee was, the government is immune from suit. 

Does that mean that, if a controller makes an error in a situation not covered by the Controller's Handbook, the victim can't sue?  

No.  Courts have ruled that an air traffic control error never falls within the Discretionary Function Exception. It doesn't matter whether the air traffic situation was covered in the Handbook, or was one left to the controller's judgment.  If a controller's error caused the accident, the victim can sue the FAA for negligence, just as though the FAA were a private party.

However, certain other rules will apply to the victim's lawsuit: 

  • Before starting the suit, the victim must file a claim against the government on a Form 95: 
  • The lawsuit must be filed in Federal Court, not State Court;
  • The judge -- not a jury -- decides the case;
  • No punitive damages can be awarded; 
  • The victim's attorney can charge a contingency fee of no more than 25% of any judgment that the court renders; 
  • If the FAA settles out of court,  the attorney can charge a contingency fee of no more than 20%.

EMS Helicopter Crash Suits Subject to Medical Malpractice Restrictions?

Special rules protect careless health care providers in California.  The rules, collectively known as MICRA, were designed to make it harder for medical malpractice victims to sue the doctors who injure them. For example,

  • The medical malpractice victim must provide the defendant doctor a special notice before filing suit.
  • At any trial, special rules of evidence apply that favor the doctor.
  • There is a $250,000 limit on what the negligent doctor or his insurance company ever has to pay to compensate parents when the doctor causes their child's death.
  • An injured party cannot recover against a negligent doctor more than the $250,000 limit for causing any sort of pain or disfigurement. 

But what do the MICRA rules have to do with helicopter crash cases?

In March 2008, a California court of appeal ruled that the medical malpractice rules apply to the claims of a someone injured in an ambulance.  In that case, called Cannister v Emergency Ambulance Service, the court ruled that a negligent ambulance company that injures a patient en route to the hospital was entitled to all the EMS Helicopter by JPCprotections of MICRA, because the ambulance company was properly considered a “health care provider.” The ruling extended the umbrella of MICRA's protection from doctors to ambulance drivers, at least when those drivers are licensed as EMT’s.

An EMS air ambulance company will undoubtedly argue that Cannister -- regardless of how unfair -- applies not just to road-bound ambulances, but to air ambulances as well. The aviation lawyer must keep the MICRA rules in mind in handling EMS helicopter accidents in California, and he should be familiar with the strategies that medical malpractice lawyers use to minimize MICRA's unfair impact on his clients.  

A Mechanic's Liability for Failure to Comply with a Manufacturer's Maintenance Instructions

The General Rule

Mechanics are required by regulation to follow the instructions set forth in the manufacturer's maintenance manuals when working on an aircraft.  The mechanic is not allowed to deviate from the instructions covering the work he undertakes.  If he does deviate, and someone is injured as a result, the mechanic is liable.

Service Bulletins

Sometimes, a manufacturer learns of a problem with the way its product is performing in the field.

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Manufacturers' Immunity from Product Defect Suits under GARA

The General Aviation Revitalization Act, known as “GARA,” immunizes general aviation manufacturers from lawsuits for defectively designed or manufactured aircraft that are more than 18 years old. Regardless of how serious the defect, if the aircraft is more than 18 years old, an injured victim cannot sue its manufacturer.

There are exceptions.  An injured party can sue the manufacturer regardless of the defective aircraft's age if:

  • The aircraft, when first certified, seated 20 or more passengers;
  • The aircraft is engaged in “scheduled” passenger operations;
  • The victim was a passenger (not a crew member) in an air ambulance;
  • The manufacturer misrepresented important information about the aircraft’s safety to the FAA during the aircraft certification process;
  • The accident occurred as a result of a part that was replaced on the aircraft less than 18 years before the accident; or
  • The victim was not an occupant of the aircraft.

US Airways Flight 1549: What Claims Do The Passengers Have?

Some Flight 1549 passengers have reportedly "lawyered-up."  What legal claims do they have?Flight 1549  Putting aside the question of whether pursuing the claims is the right thing to do -- some say they should simply count their blessings -- do the passengers have any claims to begin with?

Well, it depends on the law that applies.  For example, under California law, a passenger would first have to show that the accident was caused by the airline's negligence.  From what is known so far, that seems unlikely. If, however, the passenger succeeds in proving negligence, he would be entitled to compensation for any physical injuries he sustained as well as compensation for the emotional distress he suffered. 

What if the passenger suffered just emotional distress and no physical injuries? Again using  California law as an example, if the airline was negligent, the passenger could recover for the emotional distress, as long as that the emotional distress was "serious."  (Not much question about that.)

What if the passenger had a foreign destination listed someplace on his itinerary?  That would change everything. Even though the flight was domestic, the Montreal Convention, an international treaty governing airline liability, would trump state law.  The passenger would not need to prove the airline was negligent to recover.  It is enough that a passenger's injuries were the result of an "accident."  The airline would be automatically liable. But under the Convention, the passenger would not be entitled to compensation for mental injuries, regardless of how "serious", unless he also suffered at least some physical injury.

Warsaw and Montreal Conventions

An airline's liability for a passenger's injury or death is most often determined by state law. But if the passenger's trip includes a stop in a foreign country, then the airline's liability is controlled entirely by international treaties.  The treaties are known as the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Convention

The treaties also govern a passenger's claims for injuries occurring on a domestic flight, as long as a foreign destination was on the passenger's itinerary.  That means that state law may govern the claims of one victim of an airline disaster, while a treaty may govern the claims of his friend in the very next seat.  Because different law applies, one victim (or his family) might be entitled to compensation from the airline, and the other not.

Which is more favorable for the victim -- state law or the treaties? It depends on the circumstances of the case. For example, if state law applies, to successfully sue an airline, the passenger must prove that the injury occurred because the airline was "negligent" or, in other words, "careless".  But if a treaty applies, the passenger need not prove the airline was negligent at all. If a treaty applies, the passenger need only prove that his injuries were the result of an "accident." 

What if a flight attendant accidently pours hot coffee on you and you are seriously burned?  Under state law, you could recover from the airline, if you prove the flight attendant was careless.  Of course, if the flight attendant splashed you on purpose, you would be entitled to compensation as well.  But what  if the treaties apply? Can the flight attendant's intentional act be considered an "accident"?  Courts have struggled with this sort of question, and offer no clear-cut answer. 

Wyeth: Pre-emption and Aviation Law

For years, wrongdoers have tried to avoid responsibility for accidents they cause by arguing that, as long as they have complied with the applicable FAA regulations, they should be off the hook.  Aircraft manufacturers, for example, argue that because the FAA certified their aircraft design before it went into production, a passenger injured in one of their airplanes should not be able to sue for design defects. Maintenance facilities argue that they should be immune from lawsuits for maintenance errors unless the injured passenger proves that the mechanic violated one of the federal aviation's maintenance regulations.   

These arguments are called the "pre-emption defense."  The reasoning goes something like this:  If it's good enough for the FAA,  it should be good enough for the court system.  Courts shouldn't  be allowed to second guess the FAA.  A court should not require more of a defendant than do the regulations. 

Over the years, the pre-emption defense hasn't worked all that well for defendants.  After all, the FAA regulations themselves make clear that they are "minimum" standards only.  Recently, however, the pre-emption defense has gained traction with some courts.  For example, one federal appeals court recently ruled that airlines don't have to warn passengers about the risks of airline-induced Deep Vein Thrombosis, even though the airlines knew that warnings would save passengers' lives. The court's reasoning was that the FAA regulations cover what warnings an airline must give to its passengers.  The regulations require the airline to tell passengers how to unbuckle their seat belts, how to use the oxygen masks, and about placing their seat backs in the upright position before landing.   The regulations don't require the airline to tell passengers how to avoid DVT.  So, according to the courts, that's the end of the matter.  The airlines are off the hook.   

The US Supreme Court just put the brakes on the pre-emption defense with its decision in Wyeth v. Levine (pdf).  Wyeth wasn't an aviation case.  It was a drug case.  But the drug company in Wyeth made the same pre-emption argument that defendants make in aviation cases.  And the Court rejected it.  It  ruled that the defendant drug company was properly found liable for failing to warn about a drug's side effects.  The fact that the drug company's warnings complied with all the federal regulations was not a defense.

Wyeth is now the law of the land.   A careless defendant can't count on it's having met the bare minimum of the regulations as a sure-fire way to to escape responsibility for the harm it causes.   According to the Supreme Court, a defendant's compliance with the regulations will be a complete defense only where holding the defendant to a higher "due care" standard would frustrate the purpose of the regulations, or make it impossible for the defendant to comply with the regulations. 

The Supreme Court explained that one reason drug companies can be held to a higher standard than set forth in the regulations is because the Food and Drug Administration regulations were not intended to be the "final word" on drug safety.    Defendants will likely seize on this part of the Wyeth opinion to argue that Wyeth shouldn't apply in aviation cases.  They will point to some federal appeals court opinions that have ruled that  the FAA regulations, unlike the FDA regulations, were intended to "occupy the field."