Suing United Airlines for the Crash of Asiana Flight 214

Because Asiana Flight 214 was international, lawsuits against the responsible airline are governed by the Montreal Convention. The Montreal Convention strictly limits where a passenger may bring suit. To bring suit against an airline in a U.S. court, the injured passenger must be a U.S. resident, the passenger’s ticket must have been issued in the US, or the trip must have had a final destination in the US. As discussed here, that means that many of the tourists who were victims of Flight 214 may not qualify to sue Asiana in the US.

The Montreal Convention also permits victims to sue the responsible airline in the country in which the airline’s principal place of business is located. In this case, that doesn’t help the victims because Asiana Airlines' principal place of business is in Korea.

But some foreign passengers may have purchased their tickets through Asiana’s code-share partner, United Airlines. The Montreal Convention allows a passenger to sue not just the “actual carrier” (Asiana), but also the “contracting” carrier (the code share partner who issued the ticket). For some passengers, the "contracting carrier" may have been United Airlines.  United Airlines' place of business is in the U.S. That means that passengers who purchased a ticket from United may sue in the U.S. regardless of whether they qualify to sue Asiana here.

Suing Asiana Airlines in the United States

Other countries severely limit the compensation that may be awarded in lawsuits arising from airline accidents. For example, many other countries do not allow families to be compensated for loss of a loved one's "care, comfort, and society."  Or for "pain and suffering."  That's why in almost all situations the best venue for an Asiana Airlines Flight 214 victim to seek compensation will be the United States. 

US Courtroom

But any suit against the Asiana Airlines (as opposed to some other party who may have contributed to the crash) will be governed by the Montreal Convention. The Montreal Convention allows passengers or their family to sue Asiana Airlines in the United States if, and only if:

  1. The passenger's ticket was issued in the United States;
  2. The passenger's journey was a round trip that started in the United States or was a one-way trip that ended in the United States; or
  3. The United States was the passenger's "principal and permanent residence."

Unless the passenger can satisfy one of these three requirements, he cannot sue Asiana Airlines in the United States.


$26 Million Jury Verdict After Lycoming Refuses to Turn Over Documents

A jury in Washington state handed down a $26 million verdict against Avco Lycoming as a result of a fatal Cessna 172 crash that killed three people in 2008.  The  jury's award included $6 million in punitive damages, designed to punish Lycoming for consciously disregarding the safety of the flying public.

It's the second time a jury has slammed Lycoming with punitive damages for its carb floats. In 2010, a jury awarded $89 million, including $64 million in punitive damages, as a result of 1999 Cherokee 6 crash that killed four and injured one.

This case, however, was a bit different. It was the judge who ruled that Lycoming was responsible for the crash before the case ever reached the jury.  All that was left for the jury to decide was how much to include in its verdict.  The judge ruled against Lycoming because it refused to turn over relevant documents in the case.  Apparently, the documents were so incriminating that Lycoming felt it was better to suffer a certain jury verdict than to allow the documents to see the light of day. 

[I]n December 2005, Lycoming participated in a series of emails discussing the leaking Delrin Float issue, none of which Lycoming produced during discovery. The series of emails informs Lycoming of the significance of the Delrin float leaking problem. In the emails, Lycoming employees state that it is clear that hollow plastic carb floats can leak, allowing fuel to enter the interior of the floats. The emails reflect that there was also a recent inflight [engine] stoppage. The email also recognized the danger of discussing the defects in writing: “It is too bad that we have to answer in writing on such a touchy issue.”

Plaintiffs asked Lycoming to turn over the rest of the emails on the subject, including those that went to upper managment.  The emails would have been important evidence that Lycoming knew the floats leaked and could cause engine failure. But Lycoming refused. So the court ordered Lycoming to turn them over. Lycoming still refused. 

Lycoming's  willful and deliberate refusal to follow the court’s order prevented plaintiffs from proving their case. So the court did the only thing that was fair and ruled that the floats were defective and caused the accident.

The Judge's order is an interesting read. 

Judge's Sanctions Order Against Lycoming

Aviation Lawyers Convene at AAJ Vancouver Convention

The American Association for Justice's Annual Convention begins today at the Vancouver Convention Centre.  The program for aviation lawyers will be held on Monday, July 12.  The schedule: Vancouver

8:30 - 11:45, Room 215-216:

Speakers will be

Mike Danko - Aviation Litigation Forecast

Ricardo Martinez-Cid - International Commercial Airplane Crashes

Ladd Sanger - Aviation Deposition and Trial Skills

Heidi Snow - Clients and Grief - Insights

Vicki Norton - Three Things a Commercial Airline Pilot Would Change

1:30 - 2:30, Room 101 - 102:Teashouse

Aviation Law Section Meeting

5:30 - 7:30:

Aviation Law Section Reception (sponsored by The Danko Law Firm and Slack & Davis.) 

The Teahouse 

7501 Stanley Park Drive

All are welcome. 

Suing the Foreign Air Carrier in the United States

Other countries severely limit compensation that may be awarded in wrongful death lawsuits arising from airline accidents.  For example, many other countries do not allow families to be compensated for loss of a loved one's "care, comfort, or society."  As a result, in almost all situations, the best venue for a family's lawsuit against an airline is the United States.International Flags

If the airline passenger's trip included an international stop, then the proper venue for any lawsuit against the airline is controlled entirely by international treaties known as the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.  The Warsaw Convention permits the passenger (or the passenger's family) to sue the airline in the United States, even though the accident happened on foreign soil, if and only if:

  1. The passenger's ticket was issued in the United States;
  2. The passenger's journey was a round trip that started in the United States or was a one-way trip that ended in the United States; 
  3. The airline is incorporated in the United States; or
  4. The airline's principal place of business is in the United States.

The Montreal Convention has replaced the Warsaw Convention in most situations. The Montreal Convention adds to the list what has been called a "fifth jurisdiction." Regardless of where the accident occurred, or where the passenger began or ended his trip, the international traveler or his family may sue the foreign airline in the United States if the United States was the passenger's "principal and permanent residence."  For this fifth option to be available, however, the airline must maintain some sort of presence in the United States.     

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. 

Exosphere3d's Animation of US Airways Flight 1549: Courtroom-Ready

I blogged about Scene Systems' animation of Flight 1549's landing in the Hudson here back in March.  Great effort, but I noted that it would take hundreds more hours of work before it could be used in court.  That's because it did not appear that the animation accounted for and synchronized all the available data for the flight.  For example, the flight path depicted in the animation could not have been true to the information from the flight data recorder, because the flight data recorder had not yet been downloaded and made available by the NTSB.  As a result, Scene System's finished product involved too much guesswork to ever be shown to a jury.

Just for fun, Kas Osterbuhr of Exosphere3d in Denver has been working on perfecting an animation ever since.  He emailed me the link late last night.  Kas, whose firm creates animations for use in court, explained to me that his animation is pretty much technically perfect.

Among the datasets utilized are: audio transcripts and recordings, digital flight data recorder, raw radar data, NEXRAD weather, witness statements, satellite imagery, elevation maps and several of the NTSB reports published in the docket. . .All aspects of this animation are based on actual data, whether from the NTSB docket or otherwise. The entire 3D reconstruction is built into a single environment where every piece of information can be aligned in position and on a timeline.

Tons of work went into this animation and it shows.  Aviation accident animations don't get any better than this.

One question, Kas.  The animation depicts flames coming from the aircraft's engines at certain times.  On what data is this based and what would happen if the judge ultimately determined that that evidence for this aspect of the animation is insufficient to allow it to be shown to a jury?  

November 9 Update: Kas' response is in the comments.

First Air France Flight 447 Lawsuit: Questions and Answers

The families of Michael and Anne Harris, the American couple on board Air France Flight 447, filed suit this week in Houston federal court.  It's the first lawsuit arising from the crash. The most frequently asked questions about this suit are:

Question:  Aren't the families jumping the gun?  The Air France Fuselage Recoveryblack boxes haven't yet been recovered, and may never be.  For all we know, this may have been the result of a chance encounter with a thunderstorm.  The crash may have been an unavoidable accident with no one to blame.

Answer: The Montreal Convention is the international treaty that governs all claims against airlines involving international air travel.  Under the convention, Air France is responsible even if the the crash was "just an accident."  As a result, Air France must compensate the families for their loss regardless of what the cause of the crash turns out to be.

Question: Flight 447 was from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on a French airline.  Why should the families be allowed to sue in Houston, of all places?

Answer: The Montreal Convention allows the families to sue in the country of the passenger's "principal and permanent" residence.  The families say that, though the couple was living in Brazil, the couple maintained a permanent residence in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston.  If that's so, the families have a good argument tha they are entitled to sue in Houston.

Question: Why did the families file suit in federal court, rather than state court?

Answer: Many aviation lawyers believe that state courts are more favorable than federal courts for family members who have suffered a loss.  So victims' attorneys often prefer to sue in state court.  However, a fairly new federal statute requires almost all cases arising from large air disasters to be heard in federal court.

More Air France Flight 447:

Preserving the Aircraft Wreckage

What happens to the wreckage after an airplane accident? Who gets access to it? What does the aviation accident attorney need to do to make sure it is properly preserved?
Here's what happens: 
1. The National Transportation Safety Board Secures the Wreckage on Site. The wreckage usually remains at the site of the aircraft accident until the National Transportation Safety Board arrives. The Board investigator immediately secures the wreckage and makes Wreckage Awaiting NTSBsure no one tampers with it.  The Board investigator inspects, documents, and photographs the wreck.
2. The Wreckage is Removed to a Secure Location. After the Board investigator has inspected the wreckage on site, it asks a salvage company to remove it to a secure location.  The salvage company usually cuts the aircraft up, loads it on a truck and carts it away.  Wreckages from northern California airplane accidents often end up at a facility called Plain Parts in Pleasant Grove near Sacramento.  Wreckages from southern California accidents often end up at Aircraft Recovery Services in Pearblossom, California. Though the wreckage is now in the hands of a private salvage company, it is still considered to be in the custody of the NTSB. The salvage yard operators are supposed to allow no one access to the wreckage without the NTSB's permission.
3. The NTSB Goes to the Storage Facility. The NTSB visits the storage facility with the other parties whom the NTSB has invited to participate in the accident investigation.  (As discussed here, the NTSB often invites the aircraft and engine manufacturer to participate in the investigation. The NTSB never invites the victim or the victim's representatives. In fact, the NTSB won't even allow the victim or his representatives access to the wreckage.)  The NTSB and the invited parties conduct a more detailed inspection of the parts, and they may disassemble the engine. They may send parts out for testing. 
4. The Wreckage is "Released" to the Owner.  When the NTSB is done with its various inspections, it "releases" the wreckage to the owner.  By now, legal title to the aircraft has often changed from its original owner to the insurance company that paid for the loss of the aircraft. As far as the NTSB is concerned, the owner -- whether it's the insurance company or the original owner -- is now free to do with the wreckage what it wants, including scrapping it or selling it.    
Of course, the aircraft wreckage is important evidence. Therefore, before the NTSB releases the wreckage, the aviation attorney must take whatever steps are necessary to make sure the wreck is preserved.  The victim's attorney needs to determine who the aircraft wreckage's owner is, and he must obtain the owner's written agreement to keep the wreck secure once the NTSB releases it. If the owner refuses, or threatens to destroy the wreck, the attorney may need to seek a court order. 

Requiring an Aviation Insurance Company to Pay More Than the Policy Limits

An aviation insurance company must fairly compensate those injured due to the negligence of one of its policy holders.  Of course, in most cases, the insurance company's  financial responsibility is limited to the dollar limits of the insurance policy. 

But not always. 

When an insurance company unreasonably forces an aviation accident victim to take his case to trial instead of paying the policy limits to settle out of court, the rules change.  In that situation, the insurance company may be required to pay whatever amount the jury decides would fairly compensate the injured person, even if that amount is more than the limits of the policy.  That is because an insurance company who unreasonably refuses to pay its policy limits to settle a case is considered to be acting in "bad faith." 

Here's an example of how California insurance law works. Let's say that a passenger is injured in an aircraft crash, and that the crash was caused by the pilot's negligence.  Let's also say that the passenger has medical bills and lost wages or more than $250,000, but that the limit of the pilot's insurance policy is only $100,000.  If the injured passenger demands  from the pilot's insurance company $100,000 to settle out of court, the insurance company should pay it.  After all, it would be unreasonable not to pay that amount given the harm  the passenger has suffered.  But what if the insurance company decides to play "hard ball" and force the case to trial?  If a jury renders a verdict against the pilot of, say, $500,000, the insurance company may be required to pay the entire amount.  It is no defense that its policy was for only $100,000.  

This doesn't mean that the insurance company must automatically fork over the policy limits to the accident victim in every case. Rather, the insurance company must pay the limits to settle only when it would be unreasonable not to.  In short,  if the insurance company decides to play hardball with the injured party, then the insurance company can be held financially responsible for the consequences.


Shouldn't We Wait for the NTSB Report Before Deciding to Bring a Lawsuit?

Clients often ask: "Shouldn't we wait for the National Transportation Safety Board to finish its report before deciding whether to bring a lawsuit?" Sometimes, that makes sense. But most of the time, waiting is not in the client's best interests. Here are four reasons not to wait:

1. The NTSB's Findings are Seldom Unbiased. The NTSB doesn't have the engineering expertise or financial resources to investigate an accident on its own. So it asks for technical help from the aircraft manufacturers. For example, if a case involves an engine failure, the NTSB will ask the engine manufacturer for help in determining why the engine failed. Not surprisingly, the manufacturer seldom points out to the NTSB evidence suggesting that its own product may have caused the accident. The conflict of interest inherent in the NTSB's investigations mean that the NTSB's final reports almost always favor the big industry players.

2. The NTSB Seldom Tackles the "Why" Questions.  More and more, the NTSB's report describes what happened, without really saying why it happened. But the "why" questions are the ones that matter most.

As an example, in one case, an EMS helicopter crashed and all aboard were killed. A year and a half later, the NTSB published its probable cause report concluding that one of the helicopter's rotor blades came apart in flight. That, however, was obvious from the outset.  Only during the lawsuit that followed the crash was it discovered that the blade came apart because, months before the accident, a mechanic had botched a repair to the blade, weakening its internal structure. The NTSB never interviewed the mechanic involved.  It was satisfied that it had determined the "cause" of the accident when it figured out that the rotor blade failed. As far as the NTSB was concerned, once it determined that the blade failed, the case was closed.  The NTSB told us what happened, but not why. 

3. The NTSB's Accident Report Isn't "Binding" on Anyone. The NTSB's conclusions have no legal effect, and they are inadmissible it court.  So we can't just rely on the NTSB to do our work for us; we have to conduct our own investigation. Waiting for the report just puts us behind.

4. We Could be Waiting Forever. It usually takes the NTSB one to four years, sometimes even longer, to come out with a report.  The NTSB is so slow that if we begin a lawsuit right away, it often can be settled and sometimes even tried to verdict before the NTSB report is completed. On the other hand, if we wait for the NTSB's report before starting our own investigation, witnesses' memories will have faded and important documents may be lost or destroyed.  The wreckage may end up being scrapped before our experts examine it.  Worst of all, statutes of limitation may run on the claim, preventing us from filing any lawsuit at all regardless of what the cause of the accident turns out to be. 

The NTSB investigators are good people dedicated to aviation safety. They perform a very difficult job under harsh conditions. They are, however, underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed. They just don't have the necessary resources or expertise, especially when it comes to investigating general aviation accidents. Sad to say -- NTSB reports are seldom worth waiting for.

NTSB Releases Animation of Crash of US Airways Flight 1549

Two months ago, Scene Systems -- a litigation support firm -- released its animation of Flight 1549's crash into the Hudson. I posted here that, in all likelihood, the animation would not be admissible in court. The legal objection would be that the animation "lacked foundation." For example, without information from the Airbus' black boxes, Scene Systems couldn't confirm the aircraft's flight path or guarantee that the Air Traffic Control audio was properly synchronized to the aircraft's path of travel.  Therefore, the animation involved too much guesswork to be shown to a jury.

The National Transportation Safety Board has now released its own animation. Having retrieved the black bloxes, the NTSB was able to plot accurately the Airbus' position, speed, and altitude at each point along the aircraft's short flight.  The NTSB then properly synchronized the Air Traffic Control audio to the aircraft's flight path.

The only audio on the NTSB's animation is the radio transmissions between the crew and Air Traffic Control. As is typical, the NTSB did not make public the audio of the cockpit conversation between the captain and the first officer. The NTSB did, however, prepare a written transcript of that conversation. The NTSB superimposed the transcript on the animation. (HOT-1 is the pilot, HOT-2 is the first officer.)

Would this animation be admissible in court?  While Scene System's animation would not pass legal muster, the NTSB's work probably would. 


Proving An Aircraft Design Defect Case

What does the aviation accident lawyer need to prove in order to win a "design defect" lawsuit against the manufacturer of the aircraft that injured his client?   

It varies from state to state. But it's never enough simply to prove that the aircraft's design caused the accident or injury.  The victim's lawyer always has to prove more than that.  One way for the aviation lawyer to win the lawsuit under California law is to prove to the jury all of the following things:

  1. That the pilot did not misuse the aircraft, but instead operated it in a way the manufacturer could have anticipated;Zodiac CH 650
  2. That the aircraft’s design presented a real risk of injury, and not just a remote possibility of injury; 
  3. That a different, safer design would have avoided the accident or injury, and
  4. That the safer design was “feasible.”  In other words, a safer design would not have been too expensive, been too difficult, made the aircraft too heavy, significantly detracted from the aircraft’s performance or usefulness, or presented other serious drawbacks.

To support the case, the victim's lawyer can present to the jury evidence such as the testimony of expert engineers, pilots or eyewitnesses; documents from the manufacturer's files; pieces of the aircraft wreckage; “mock-ups” of safer, alternative designs; and laboratory test results.  He cannot, however, use any of the conclusions or opinions contained in the National Transportation Safety Board report concerning the accident.  That's because the NTSB's opinions are inadmissible in court.

After all the evidence has been presented, the judge explains to the jury exactly what the victim's lawyer needed to prove in order to win. The explanation is called the "jury instructions."  The judge gets the instructions from standard, pre-published forms that he modifies as needed for the particular case. 

For the victim to win, the jury must agree, after reviewing all the evidence, that his lawyer proved his case by a "preponderance of the evidence."  That means that the evidence, taken together, showed that each element of the victim’s case was “more likely than not” true.  The lawyer need not prove his case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That standard of proof applies only in criminal cases.  

Continental (Colgan) Flight 3407: Law Firms Take Different Tacks

Right after the crash of Flight 3407 at Buffalo, investigators  focused on the aircraft's deicing system. The question, as explained by former CNN reporter and pilot Miles O'Brien, was whether ice had accumulated on the plane's wings faster than the de-icing system could remove it, leading to an aerodynamic “stall,” or loss of lift. 

But as the investigation progressed, it began to look as though, just before the pilot lost control of the aircraft, the nose of the plane pitched up  -- not down as usually happens when ice overwhelms an aircraft.  That raised an almost unthinkable possibility:  gross pilot error.  When an aircraft gets

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Aviation Lawyers and the Contingency Fee Contract

Most victims of a helicopter or airplane accident can't afford to pay aviation attorneys an hourly rate to investigate the cause of the crash or to take an aviation lawsuit to trial.  For these people, the doors of the courthouse would be essentially closed were it not for the contingency fee agreement.  The contingency fee agreement places the victim on a level playing field with the aviation manufacturers, insurance companies and other major corporations who may be responsbile for an aircraft accident.  Under a contingency fee agreement, the client hires a lawyer, but if there is no settlement or verdict, the client pays nothing to the attorney for his work in investigating the case, initiating the lawsuit, or taking the case through trial.  All costs associated with the investigation and the lawsuit are paid by the attorney. The contingency fee agreement allows any victim access to the legal system, regardless of the victim's financial circumstances.

US Airways Flight 1549 Animation

Scene System's animation of the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 is a viral hit.  The litigation support firm combined available ATC audio tapes, flight track information, and an on-scene photograph into a great recreation.  This is the exactly the type of animation used in court to help juries understand the details of an aviation accident.  

But would this particular animation be admissible in a lawsuit?  Probably not. It incorporates too much guesswork.  For example, Scene System overlays the animation with audio from Air Traffic Control tapes.  Are the movements and positions of the aircraft properly synchronized with the audio? To do that right, you'd most likely need information from the Flight Data Recorder , which isn't yet available. Without that data, the animation is objectionable as "lacking foundation."  It's safe to say that, before it could be shown in court, the animation would require hundreds more hours of work and refinement. 

Of course, Scene Systems wasn't out to produce a recreation that was admissible in court. It was just trying to show the type of product it is capable of. And it did that very nicely.