Civil Liability for Injuries from Operation of Aircraft

A party is liable for the injuries caused by his/her negligent conduct if it is foreseeable that the conduct will cause injury.  Where the defendant is a public carrier, it owes the highest degree of care to its passengers[i].

The application of ordinary rules of negligence to aviation fixes a greater degree of responsibility since the operation of aircraft calls for a greater degree of care than operation of an instrumentality which is incapable of inflicting serious injury[ii].

The liability of the owner of one aircraft to the owner of another aircraft, or to aeronauts or passengers on either aircraft, for damage caused by collision on land or in the air, will be determined by the rules of law applicable to torts on land[iii].

In a Federal Tort Claims Act suit, the whole law, including choice of law rules of the jurisdiction where the alleged act or omission occurred governs the rights and liabilities of the parties[iv].

The liability of federally certificated air carriers for loss of or damage to cargo is governed by federal common law[v].  Under federal common law, in the absence of evidence of unconscionability on the part of the carrier, a carrier may limit its liability for actual damages resulting from its negligence[vi].

The rule of liability applicable to aircraft is that if the aircraft is operated in a negligent manner, the pilot in command is negligent regardless of whether or not s/he is at the controls at the time, at least in the absence of extenuating circumstances such as sudden illness[vii].  This imposes a high duty and heavy burden upon the pilot in command of the aircraft.

Each pilot is responsible for the damage to a person or property caused by an aircraft directed by him/her or under his/her control which results from the negligence of the pilot, either in controlling the aircraft or while giving instructions to another[viii].  However, the duty is commensurate with the skills required and the perils incurred[ix].

If the pilot is the agent or employee of another, s/he and his/her principal or employer will be responsible for the damage[x].  Also, the air carrier may be held liable for injuries or damage proximately caused by the negligence of its authorized personnel in operating the carrier’s aircraft.

Where an aircraft descends on persons or property on the ground beneath, or where objects thrown from the aircraft causes damage, the owner or operator of the offending aircraft is held to the strictest accountability[xi].

The strict accountability rule is based upon the fact that there is nothing the person on the ground can do to protect him/herself and property against the aircraft.

[i] In re N-500L Cases, 691 F.2d 15 (1st Cir. P.R. 1982).

[ii] Brunt v. Chicago Mill & Lumber Co., 243 Miss. 607 (Miss. 1962).

[iii] Finfera v. Thomas, 119 F.2d 28, 30 (6th Cir. Mich. 1941).

[iv] Beech Aircraft Corp. v. United States, 51 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. Cal. 1995).

[v] Cash Am. Pawn, L.P. v. Federal Express Corp., 109 F. Supp. 2d 513 (N.D. Tex. 2000).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Lange v. Nelson-Ryan Flight Service, Inc., 259 Minn. 460 (Minn. 1961).

[viii] Nava v. Truly Nolen Exterminating, 140 Ariz. 497 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984).

[ix] Lange v. Nelson-Ryan Flight Service, Inc., 259 Minn. 460 (Minn. 1961).

[x] Nava v. Truly Nolen Exterminating, 140 Ariz. 497 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984).

[xi] Brunt v. Chicago Mill & Lumber Co., 243 Miss. 607 (Miss. 1962).


Inside Civil Liability for Injuries from Operation of Aircraft