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Who is Legally Responsible for Plane Crashes?

airplane at dawn
Flying is statistically the safest way to travel but there are still accidents, some of which can be devastating. Airplane accidents fall under the general umbrella of aviation law, a large and complex area of the law that is heavily influenced by federal administrative regulations. 1 Plane crashes are most often the result of either pilot error or mechanical failure, so liability can fall on either the airline or the manufacturer of the offending mechanical component.
Suits for personal injury arising from aviation accidents are usually predicated on theories of either negligence (in the case of pilot error) or products liability (in the case of mechanical failure). Often, there is a combination of pilot error and mechanical failure that results in an aviation accident, and thus victims (or their representatives) may invoke both grounds in a personal injury or wrongful death suit. Complicating these legal theories is the fact that air travel is heavily regulated by federal agencies. Thus, federal rules and regulations may impact personal injury claims and the standards of care owed to the victims of aviation accidents.
Pilot Error
Airlines are considered to be “common carriers,” which transport people or goods for a fee and provides services under the authorization of a regulatory authority. For airlines, the regulatory authority is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Common carriers are required to exercise the highest degree of care in diligence in the safety of their passengers and/or cargo.
When airlines are sued for accidents arising from pilot error, the claims are almost always based on a theory of negligence,2 which involves a showing of a duty to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages. For common carriers like airlines, the duty is much higher than in a regular negligence action—common carriers owe the utmost care and diligence with respect to their passengers. Thus, it is often much easier for plaintiffs to show that the defendant airline’s conduct fell below that standard because it is so high.
Mechanical Failure
A personal injury or wrongful death action based on mechanical failure arises when the accident was caused by a defective product. These types of claims can be brought against manufacturers and sellers of products used in the aircraft. Unlike claims for pilot error based on negligence, products liability claims are based on a theory of strict liability, where a manufacturer of an aircraft (or a component part), can be held liable regardless of their conduct. This is because the focus of a products liability action is on the safety of the product rather than the defendant’s actions.
The law governing products liability varies little from state to state. In a negligence action for an aviation accident, the defendant’s conduct must fall below the very high standard expected of a common carrier. However, for high-risk industries like aviation, manufacturers of airplanes and component parts must manufacture and warn in accordance with the foreseeable risks of using their products. In order to prevail on a theory of strict liability, a plaintiff must show merely that:
  1. The product was defective when it left the manufacturer or distributor’s control
  2. The product was used in the intended manner or a reasonably foreseeable manner, and
  3. The product caused plaintiff’s injury
Contact a Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer
If you have been injured in an aviation accident and believe you may have a claim against an airline, manufacturer, or distributor, please contact the personal injury attorneys at Abels & Annes, PC, for a free consultation by calling 312-924-7575. 
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