If the United States Government is responsible for an accident, it can be sued just like any other wrongdoer under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  But there’s an important exception — the federal government cannot be sued for bad decisions that the government left to the federal employee’s best judgment.  The "Discretionary Function Exception" is perhaps the most important limitation on a victim’s right to sue the government when it causes injury or death.  And the exception is complicated. Claire Choo helps unravel it.

 

Tort Claims Act  

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Here are six ways an aircraft owner can be found liable even if he was not on board when the plane crashed:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.

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.

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.  

It’s the passenger in the aisle seat who is most often injured by baggage falling from an overhead bin. The injuries can be serious and can include mild traumatic brain injury.Overhead bin

If the baggage falls and injures a passenger who is travelling internationally, then the Montreal Convention or Warsaw Conventions apply.  The conventions are international treaties that make the airlines automatically liable for any injury to the passenger that resulted from an "accident."  An "accident" is defined as an unusual or unexpected event that is external to the passenger.  Under certain circumstances, being injured by falling baggage may well qualify. 

The conventions apply even if the flight was entirely domestic, as long as the passenger had an international destination somewhere on his itinerary.

What if the flight on which the injury occurred was domestic and there was no international travel involved?  Then it’s trickier.  The passenger must prove that the airline was negligent before the airline can be held liable.  For example, the passenger must prove that a flight attendant was careless in opening a baggage compartment and allowing the object to fall out.  Or, the passenger must prove that the bag fell out when a fellow passenger opened the compartment because a flight attendant stowed the bag improperly.

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.

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.

When the evidence needed to reconstruct an aviation accident is lost or destroyed in the crash, can the victim nonetheless hold whoever caused the accident accountable?

Yes, if the legal doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur" apples — Latin for "the thing speaks for itself."

Most courts recognize that air crashes do not normally occur unless someone, somewhere, was negligent.  It’s just a matter of who.  If circumstances point to one particular person above all others, then "the thing speaks for itself," and that person can be held accountabe even without any physical evidence to prove the case.

Let’s say an airplane’s engine fails and the plane crashes. The pilot survives but is badly injured. The key engine components are either battered beyond recognition, destroyed by the post-crash fire, or never located. Under the circumstances, it may be impossible to ever determine exactly why the engine failed.  There may be little chance of determining from the wreckage who was responsible for the accident.

Now assume that engine work had been performed on the plane just before the accident. Under the circumstances, one might suspect that the engine failed because the mechanic who performed the engine work did something wrong.  Of course, there are other possible explanations for the engine failure as well.  But if the injured pilot can prove that the mechanic’s work is the most likely explanation, a judge or jury may decide that the maintenance shop is responsible, even without any physical evidence to rely on.

To invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur against the maintenance shop in this example, the injured pilot must prove that:

  1. The engine would not have failed unless someone was negligent;
  2. The maintenance facility had exclusive control of the engine during the key time period (that is, only the facility’s own mechanics had access to the inside of the engine when it was opened up); and
  3. The pilot did not cause or contribute to the engine failure (by, for example, running out of gas).

Even if there isn’t enough physical evidence to determine how or why the engine failed, if the pilot can prove all these three things, he may nonetheless be able to hold the shop responsible for his injuries.

An FBO is not supposed to rent an aircraft to a pilot who the FBO knows isn’t competent to complete the planned flight safely. If it does, and a passenger is hurt or killed by the pilot’s mistake, the victim or his family can hold the FBO responsible. That’s the law of "negligent Negligent entrustment of aircraftentrustment."

A pilot who doesn’t hold the proper license or rating to operate the aircraft he is seeking to rent is probably not competent to complete the planned flight safely.  But what if the pilot is properly licensed and meets all the FAA’s other requirements? If the FBO rents the aircraft to the pilot, can the FBO still be held responsible for what turns out to be the pilot’s mistakes?

Sometimes, the answer is yes.

The landmark case is White v. Inbound Aviation. A young pilot had just recently received his private pilot’s license. He was comfortable flying the FBO’s Piper Archer in which he had been "checked out" by one of the FBO’s instructors. The FBO felt the renter was a good pilot.  It felt, however, that the pilot should obtain some additional instruction in "mountain flying" before flying to an airport in the mountains nearby.  The FBO felt that without the instruction, the pilot might not be able to handle the special challenges presented by "high density altitude" airports. 

One day the pilot showed up to rent the Archer. He told the FBO that he wanted to fly two friends to Lake Tahoe airport, an airport in the mountains.  The pilot hadn’t obtained the mountain-flying instruction, but the FBO rented the aircraft to him anyway.

The pilot landed at Lake Tahoe airport without incident. But he wasn’t prepared for the effects of the altitude, heat, and weight of the aircraft on takeoff.  When he attempted to depart, he crashed, killing himself as well as his two passengers.

The family of one of the passengers sued the FBO, arguing it should never have rented the plane to the pilot for this particular trip. The jury agreed and held the FBO liable.Archer II by Markus

The FBO appealed.  It argued that the pilot held a license that legally entitled him to fly anywhere he wanted, including mountain airports like Lake Tahoe. That, the FBO argued, should have been the end of the matter. If the pilot was competent in the eyes of the FAA, he should have been deemed competent in the eyes of the court.

The court of appeal disagreed, and affirmed the jury’s verdict against the FBO.  Though the young pilot may have been a competent pilot generally, that wasn’t the issue.  The FBO knew that, notwithstanding his license, the pilot wasn’t competent for the particular flight he had planned.  As the court of appeal noted:

[The issue as plaintiffs framed it] was not whether [the pilot] was competent in general to pilot an aircraft but whether [he] was competent to ‘operate the aircraft that he operated on the day he operated it and in the manner in which he operated it under the conditions he experienced … on July 3rd with three people on board going to Lake Tahoe.’

The FBO knew that, even though he was properly licensed, the pilot was not competent to conduct the particular flight he had planned under the conditions that existed on the day of the accident.  The court of appeal ruled that, therefore, the jury properly held the FBO liable for the accident under the law of negligent entrustment.