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Aviation Accidents and Products Liability

Product liability cases begin with the question of whether the pilot was solely responsible for the accident, whether a defective aircraft or aircraft part was solely responsible for the accident, or whether a combination of the two was responsible for the accident. More often than not, pilot error is the main cause of aircraft accidents. However, even when pilot error is the cause of an aircraft accident if a defective product (the aircraft or aircraft part) helped to cause the injuries, the manufacturer may still be liable through strict product liability. Strict product liability was designed to protect consumers from, and enhance safety of, products. When general aviation aircraft have defective products, the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) may preclude recovery. Additional information on GARA is included below. Also, the Government Contractor’s Defense may preclude recovery when the United States government was involved with the design of a defective product.

To decide who is responsible for an aircraft accident, the attorney must collect a great deal of information. For starters, the attorney must gather all information that can shed light on the pilot involved in the accident. This can be accomplished by interviewing the pilot (if he or she survived) or the family if the pilot did not survive, interviewing other pilots, and interviewing witnesses. Additionally, researching the pilot’s flying history, medical status, and certification status is also important.

The attorney also needs to learn all about the aircraft involved in the accident, and will gather any information such as log books, maintenance records, service bulletins, airworthiness directives, and the pilot operating handbook. Finally, the attorney will gather any other information that may shed light on circumstances at the time of the accident, such as eyewitness interviews, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data, air traffic control transcripts, and weather read-outs. The attorney should also use the Freedom of Information Act to request the FAA and manufacturer for manufacturer representations, certification documents, and memorandums about the aircraft.   

Product liability differs state to state. Generally speaking, a product defect that causes death or an injury has a statute of limitation (time in which a cause of action must be filed) of one year. Most states prohibit strict product liability cases when the only damage was to the product itself. Most states attach strict liability to a product that causes an injury when the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary customer would expect when using the product as intended (or in a reasonably foreseeable manner), or when the product fails a risk-benefit test. Under a risk-benefit test, the jury would consider whether the risk of using the product outweighed the benefit of using the product. Part of that analysis would be to consider any alternative, safer designs that were available when the product was sold, and any extreme costs or adverse effects of using those alternative designs. Other states attach strict liability to products if the use of the product is unreasonably dangerous for an ordinary person. 

Manufacturers will not be immune from strict liability suits just because they followed applicable Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), because FARs are merely the minimum safety standard a manufacturer has to follow. In high-risk industries like aviation, manufacturers are in the position to design, manufacture, and warn consumers of foreseeable risks that come with using its products. Thus, if a manufacturer fails to do one of those three things the manufacturer may be held liable. Many states’ aviation product liability laws are the same laws that apply to appliances, cars, and aircraft. 

If the plaintiff is partially at fault in the accident, whether or not they can receive compensation differs state to state. In Arizona, a pure comparative negligence system is followed. Under a pure comparative negligence system, a percentage of fault is assigned to all responsible parties. That percentage equates to the amount of recovery the plaintiff may receive. So, if the plaintiff is 70% at fault, they could only receive 30% of damages awarded. For more information about damages, please see the article Airplane and Helicopter Accidents: What Damages Are Recoverable?         

GARA may bar a manufacturer’s liability when the general aviation aircraft or aircraft part responsible for the accident was delivered more than 18 years ago. GARA only applies to aircraft that are non-commercial carriers, that are FAA certified, and that have a capacity of less than 20 passengers. The reasoning behind GARA was to prevent manufacturers from being responsible for aircraft for the total span of the aircraft’s lifetime. There are exceptions to GARA. An example is if the plaintiff can prove the manufacturer knowingly misrepresented, concealed, or withheld pertinent information that showed the aircraft or aircraft part was a factor in the aircraft accident. Additional exceptions are if the plaintiff was on board in order to receive medical care, if the injured person was in another plane or on the ground, or if the manufacturer’s warranty covered the responsible aircraft part. 

Another bar on manufacturer’s liability is the Government Contractor Defense. This defense only works if the government was not negligent. The Government Contractor Defense applies when the United States approves reasonably precise product design specifications, the manufacturer built the product in conformity with those specifications, and the supplier to the United States warned the United States of any known dangers involved with using the product that the United States did not know about. Make sure you are represented by an experienced aviation attorney who understands these issues.

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