In the absence of any statutory or contractual provision, the liability for the destruction of or injuries to aircraft is governed by the rules applicable to torts. In State use of Piper v. Henson Flying Service, Inc., 191 Md. 240 (Md. 1948), the court observed that “the rules of law relating to the operation of aircraft, in the absence of statute, in general are rules relating to negligence and nuisance and are not distinguishable from those that relate to the operation of vehicles, perhaps, more closely to motor vehicles on land. The principle of res ipsa loquitur only applies where the direct cause of the accident and so much of the surrounding circumstances as were essential to its occurrence were within the sole control of defendants or of their servants.”
Generally, the proprietor of an airport has the following duties[i]:
- to see that the airport is safe for aircraft;
- to give proper warning of any danger of which such person knows, or ought to know;
- to keep the runway free from obstructions, so far as possible; and
- to place markers warning pilots of the danger.
In addition, if the accommodations in the airports are for any reason not reasonably suitable and safe for the purposes for which they may ordinarily and apparently be used, the public should be excluded from their use, or appropriate notice of their unsuitable or unsafe condition should be given so as to warn persons of dangers in using them. Any failure to perform these duties or any of them will constitute negligence and the proprietor will be held liable to the owner of an aircraft using the airport or the facilities under the proprietor’s control. If such negligence results in injury to another person without his/her fault, then a cause of action for compensatory damages will lie against the proprietor of the airport[ii].
However, the proprietor of an airport cannot be held liable for the following activities:
- where a pilot attempts to land an aircraft at an airport with the sun in the pilot’s eyes so that the pilot cannot see whether the runway is clear; or
- where a pilot whose plane, while taxiing down the runway of an airport, collided with a standing truck which the pilot could have seen in time had the pilot looked carefully.
In such cases the liability will shift to the pilot of an aircraft for negligent acts because, in the operation and control of an aircraft, it is the pilot’s duty to exercise ordinary care. In Plewes v. Lancaster, 171 Pa. Super. 312 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1952), the court observed that “in the operation and control of an airplane it is the pilot’s duty to exercise ordinary care. He is not held to the highest degree of care that men of reasonable vigilance or foresight ordinarily exercise in the operation of a plane in making a landing on a runway in an airport, but he is bound only to use ordinary care. The failure to anticipate negligence which results in injury is not negligence and will not defeat an action for the injury sustained. A party is not bound to guard against the want of ordinary care on the part of another. He has a right to presume that ordinary care will be used to protect him and his property from injury. No one can complain of want of care in another where care is only rendered necessary by his own wrongful act.”
Likewise a student pilot will be held liable for damage to the aircraft which is used by the pilot in a training flight, if it is established that such damage was proximately caused by the student’s negligence. However, the proprietor of a flying school cannot make a student pilot liable to them for damages. This is so because a flying school is chargeable with knowledge of a student’s proficiency in flying an aircraft and the damage to an aircraft owned by a flying school due to a student’s lack of skill in operating it, is a risk which the school assumes in its training program.
The liability of a bailee of an aircraft arises under the following circumstances:
- where a bailee fails to exercise due care to prevent damage to the aircraft;
- where a bailee fails to observe the elementary principles of safe flying;
- where a bailee commits a breach of the bailment contract for failure to return the aircraft in the same condition in which it was delivered[iii];
- where a bailee is guilty of conversion in using or permitting others to use the aircraft contrary to the bailor’s instructions; and
- where the cause of a fire which destroys an aircraft while stored with a bailee for hire is the negligent acts of a bailee or his/her employees.
A clause in a bailment contract that eliminates the liability of a bailee for damage caused by fire, will not exempt a bailee from liability for a fire caused by the negligence of a bailee or any of the bailee’s employees.
[i] Stevenson v. Reimer, 240 Iowa 652 (Iowa 1949).
[ii] Peavey v. Miami, 146 Fla. 629 (Fla. 1941).
[iii] Prettyman v. Hopkins Motor Co., 139 W. Va. 711 (W. Va. 1954).