At least 10 people aboard United Flight 935 were hurt when the aircraft encountered severe turbulence.  Is the airline responsible for compensating its injured passengers?

Continental 767 CabinBecause Flight 935 was an international flight, a treaty known as the Montreal Convention governs the passengers’ claims.  The Montreal Convention makes the airline liable for any injuries suffered on board the aircraft due to an "accident."  The definition of "accident" includes an encounter with severe turbulence.  The passenger need not prove that the airline was at fault for the accident.  Under the Convention, the airline is automatically liable.

Some courts have ruled that while an airline is automatically liable for any "accident" on an international flight, its obligation to compensate an injured passenger may be reduced if the passenger himself contributed to his injury.  One issue that typically arises in turbulence cases is whether the injured passenger should have been wearing his seat belt.  In this case, it appears the seat belt sign was off and the turbulence competely unexpected, so that should not be an issue.

As discussed here, the Convention entitles the passengers to be compensated for the emotional distress they have suffered, but only if they also suffered some sort of physical injury as well.

Finally, as discussed here, the passengers are entitled to sue the airline for compensation in the United States, and in particular in California (Los Angeles or San Francisco), regardless of their citizenship or final destination. 

Aircraft engine manufacturers recommend that owners overhaul their engines when they accumulate a certain amount of operating time, usually between 1200 and 2400 hours depending on the engine’s make and model. For example, Teledyne Continental Motors suggests that owners overhaul its IO-550 model engine at 2000 hours. Textron LycLycoming Engine - photo by wirelizardoming suggests that owners overhaul its O-235 engine, like the one pictured, at 2400 hours.

Overhauls are expensive.  Some can cost $40,000 or more.  An increasing number of owners opt to run their engines 200, 400 or more hours past the manufacturer’s recommended "time between overhauls," or TBO.  Once past TBO, they may take extra precautions by, for example, regularly sending out engine oil samples for spectrographic analysis, checking the engine’s compression, and looking inside certain parts of the engine with a boroscope to insure that  things look good. They feel the manufacturer’s TBO recommendations are somewhat arbitrary. By running their engines past TBO they are squeezing more life out of them, and that just makes good economic sense.

The FAA does not require private owners to comply with the manufacturer’s stated TBO interval. The manufacturer’s TBO is therefore advisory only.  As long as a properly certified mechanic has

Continue Reading Running Past TBO: Smart Economics or Owner Negligence?

When someone is killed in an airplane or helicopter accident, California’s wrongful death law allows only certain members of the victim’s family to obtain monetary compensation from those who are responsible.  The family members who are entitled to compensation are:

  • The victim’s Spouse or registered Domestic Partner
  • The victim’s Parents – but not where the victim left children, unless the parents were financially dependent on the victim
  • The victim’s Children, including Adopted Children
  • The victim’s Stepchildren – but only if they were financially dependent on the victim 
  • Unrelated children in the victim’s care – If the child lived with and was financially dependent on the victim for the 180 days before the victim’s death 
  • The victim’s Brothers & Sisters – but only when the victim left no other relatives with a right to sue.  

Many aviation accidents occur over navigable waters.  When that happens, maritime law may apply and the rules can be slightly different.  For example, parents may be entitled to compensation for the loss of their son or daughter, even though the son or daughter was married with children, and though the parents were not financially dependent on him or her.

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.

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? 

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

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; and
  • The victim’s attorney can charge a contingency fee of no more than 25% of any judgment that the court renders. 

The Yemenia Air flight that crashed near Moroni wasn’t built in the United States. It had no Americans on board, and no part of the flight was through U.S. airspace. The aircraft, however, was leased to Yemenia Air by a Los Angeles company, International Lease Finance Corporation, or “ILFC.” Could the Yemenia Air families successfully bring a lawsuit against ILFC in the U.S.? Perhaps, but only if they could prove all of the following:

1. That Yemenia Air Was Not Competent to Operate the Aircraft. The European Union banned the accident aircraft from entering EU airspace in 2007 after inspecting the aircraft and finding a long Yemenia Air A310list of technical discrepancies. The EU is now considering banning the airline from operating any of its aircraft in EU airspace. The reason? The airline does not seem capable of operating safely. Apparently, Yemenia lacks the technical expertise, the resources, or the inspectors to make sure minimum safety standards are met. From what we know about Yemenia Air thus far, the families should have little difficulty proving that the airline was not competent to safely operate ILFC’s aircraft.

2. That ILFC Knew the Airline Was Not Competent. A lessor can be held accountable to those injured by a lessee airline’s incompetence if, when it entrusted the aircraft to the lessee airline, the lessor knew the airline was not competent to operate the aircraft safely. The legal theory is called “negligent entrustment.” Yemenia Air has a terrible reputation and the families would have a good chance of proving that the leasing company knew it. Red flags certainly would have been raised for ILFC at least by 2007, when it learned that the EU had banned its aircraft from EU airspace.

3. That the Federal Law Immunizing Lessors from Liability for the Negligence of their Lessees Does Not Apply. A federal statute, USC section 44112, states that one who leases an aircraft is not liable when the lessor has an accident. But that statute was designed to protect the lessor from “automatic” liability that might arise in some states simply because the leasing company owns the aircraft. It doesn’t protect a lessor from liability for its own wrongful conduct when, for example, it knowingly entrusts an aircraft to an airline that can’t operate it safely.

4. That it is More “Convenient” for ILFC to Litigate in the US Than in Yemen. The legal doctrine of forum non conveniens allows a US court to transfer a case to a foreign country if it believes that, all things considered, it would be more convenient for the parties. And a court in California did exactly that in the Flash Air case, which involved ILFC and a 2004 crash off the coast of Egypt. In the Flash Air case, the court transferred the case overseas because, among other reasons, it decided that the best evidence concerning the cause of the crash was overseas, and that evidence would be difficult to bring here.  That’s the same situation in this case. So overcoming ILFC’s “forum non conveniens” argument would be the families’ biggest challenge. There is, however, one significant difference between this case and the Flash Air case. This case would be all about ILFC’s “negligent entrustment” of the aircraft.  So in this case, the most important evidence concerns what ILFC knew about the airline’s level of competence. That evidence is most likely here, not overseas.
 

What must an aviation attorney prove to win a negligence lawsuit against someone who he believes responsible for the accident that injured his client? Two things. First, the aviation attorney must prove that the entity was "negligent."  Second, the attorney must prove that the defendant’s negligence was a "cause" of the accident or of the injury.

Negligence Defined. Someone is "negligent" if he was not "reasonably careful" under the circumstances. It is not enough for the attorney to prove simply that defendant could have avoided the accident by doing something differently.  No mechanic, pilot, or other defendant is expected to be perfect.  He is, however, expected to be as careful as others would have been in the same situation.  If he was not, then he was negligent.  

Violation of Regulations. Sometimes, it turns out that the manufacturer, mechanic, or other defendant violated a federal aviation regulation.  In some states, one who violates a regulation is automatically considered negligent, or "negligent per se."  In other states, one who violates a regulation isn’t automatically negligent, but the violation is something the jury is allowed to consider when deciding the question.

Compliance with Regulations.  Proving that the defendant violated a regulation goes a long way towards proving that the defendant was negligent.  But what if the defendant proves he complied with all the regulations?  Is he off the hook?  No.  One who complies with every regulation can still be found to be negligent.  That’s because the aviation regulations are minimum safety standards only.  Presumably, those involved in aviation hold themselves to a higher standard of care.  In other words, reasonable mechanics or manufacturers are expected to go above and beyond the regulations.

Causation.  To win the negligence lawsuit, the victim’s attorney must also prove that the defendant’s negligence was a cause of the accident or the injury. So, for example, it’s not enough for the victim’s attorney to prove that the mechanic was not reasonably careful. Sure, the mechanic may have been negligent for failing to tighten the nuts to the correct torque value.  But to win the case, the victim’s attorney must prove that the failure to tighten the nuts was one of the causes of the accident or injury. 

During the Vietnam war, hundreds of soldiers suffered serious burn injuries following otherwise survivable Huey helicopter crashes.  In 1970, Bell Helicopter responded by developing a crashworthy Huey photo by Cranefuel system and installing it in the new Hueys it produced.  The crashworthy system included stronger fuel cells, breakaway fuel lines, and cutoff valves.  

The Army kept track of the effectiveness of the new fuel system.  Over the next 39 months, 895 helicopters without the new system crashed.  Post impact fires resulted in 52 burn fatalities and 31 burn injuries.  Over the same time period, 702 helicopters with the new crashworthy fuel system went down.  Remarkably, there was not a single thermal injury or death in any of those crashes.  That was enough to convince the Army.  After that, it required all its helicopters to be manufactured with the crashworthy fuel system.   

Today, no one should be burned in an otherwise survivable helicopter accident.  The technology has long existed to almost completely eliminate post-crash helicopter fires. But while the risk has been virtually eliminated in military helicopter operations, post crash fires are still the single biggest hazard to survivors of civilian helicopter crashes. (pdf) That’s because some civilian helicopter manufacturers have resisted incorporating crashworthy fuel systems into their designs.    

Helicopter manufacturers know that some of the aircraft they manufacturer will inevitably be involved in accidents.  They must take steps to make their civilian helicopters reasonably safe in the event of an accident, just as they do when building helicopters for the military.  If someone is burned in a civilian helicopter crash, then the aircraft’s design may well be proven to be defective, and the manufacturer held accountable for the injuries its design has caused.