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. 

There are a couple of court opinions that seem to go along with the insurance company’s reasoning.  But none of those opinions applies in California.  

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.

  • Cloudesley Shovell

    I was not at all surprised to see that Roger Traynor authored that opinion. If one’s view of the law is that those with the money ought to pay, it’s easy to mold the law to fit that notion.

    One can argue all day long about the nobleness of Traynor’s theories regarding social responsibility for damages, but the implementation via a scheme that results in jackpot justice for some while leaving others out in the cold based upon the existence of a well-insured defendant or the whims of a jury surely isn’t the best way to implement things. One ends up with a system where the law tolerates more and more outlandish theories of liability and idiotic testimony from “experts” in order to affix liability on whatever party has insurance or money (cf. the now-discredited silicone breast implant litigation). This effectively makes those with money the insurers of those without money.

    One comic side effect is that a party will attempt to get settlements from more than one insured defendant based on completely different and mutually exclusive theories of liability. I am familiar with at least one such case here in my home state where the plaintiff’s lawyer got a settlement in a plane crash from one defendant (the one actually at fault), then went to the next defendant. Too bad for him the two defendants’ lawyers talked to each other.

  • Mike Danko


    Few burn victims or paraplegics would consider a jury award that covers their medical expenses or lost wages to be a “jackpot,” regardless of its size. And all would gladly trade in their “winnings”if it meant that their injuries would disappear or their lost loved one would be returned to them.

    Something to think about.


  • Cloudesley Shovell

    Well, that’s my point exactly. You start your argument from the fact that there was an injury. I question whether there was any fault in the first place. In practice, the law is on your side, not mine, and I think that is the wrong approach. It’s not the fact that an injury occurred but the fault of the tortfeasor that is supposed to, in theory, justify an award of damages.

    No matter how horrific the injury, a defendant’s responsibility for damages should be measured by the degree of fault, not the magnitude of injury. If society were so concerned about social responsibility for damages, society would mandate no-fault insurance coverage for all injuries. That way, each individual would pay for the amount of insurance they desired. People do this all the time with auto insurance via UIM coverage. Yet such insurance is normally not available elsewhere outside the auto context. Why not mandate a market for it?

    By the way, I put my money where my mouth is–I pay extra for objectively absurd auto liability limits just so I can raise my UIM coverage (they’re tied together–UIM cannot exceed liability limits). Most people don’t do this, however, which is why badly injured people without adequate insurance reach out to skilled trial advocates to create objectively ridiculous theories of liability in an attempt to score a jackpot against an objectively blameless defendant. (And yes, “compensation” received from an innocent defendant is a jackpot, no matter how much post hoc justification about rational juries making preponderance of the evidence decisions.)

    Sure, you can rationalize it by saying that the person was badly injured, but that’s no more an ethical justification than manufacturing a criminal case against an innocent defendant just because someone was a victim of a crime, and “somebody’s got to pay.” Everyone generally feels better if some scumbag goes to jail, but it’s supposed to be the actual scumbag, not a convenient scapegoat.

    I know we disagree on this fundamental issue, I’m not going to change your mind, you’re not going to change mine. Yes, I am an attorney, and also a pilot. I’ve done both criminal and tort law, and was so manifestly disgusted by what I saw in the world of torts that I got out as soon as I got a full-time pilot job. Not as much money, but much happier.