Duty of Owner or Operator to Guest or Occupant in Aircraft

In the absence of statutes establishing a different rule, the liability of the owner or operator of an airplane to a guest injured or killed therein will be determined under ordinary rules of negligence applicable in other situations[i].

An owner or operator will usually be liable only for ordinary negligence, that is, s/he will be bound to exercise only the degree of care expected of the ordinary reasonable man.

The rules of law governing the degree of care owed by an operator of an aircraft to his/her guest riding therein are the same as those governing the operator of a motor vehicle under similar circumstances, and in both cases, the defendant operator is liable for injuries to his/her guest only in cases of gross negligence[ii].

The liability of the operator of an aircraft carrying passengers by invitation and gratuitously is that of slight care and the absence of such care is considered gross negligence[iii].

The basic question in determining guest status is whether the operator of the vehicle has been given compensation by another for the privilege of riding[iv].  This compensation may consist of any benefit of a tangible nature received by the former as a consideration for the ride[v].

A guest statute will not exonerate the operator of an aircraft from the liability caused by his/her negligence when s/he receives some benefit such as anticipated profit for his/her business[vi].

State statutes provide that a person transported by the owner or operator of any aircraft as his/her guest, without compensation for such transportation, will not have any right of action for civil damages against such owner or operator for injury, death, or loss in the case of an accident[vii].

However, if such accident is caused by the willful and wanton misconduct of the owner or operator of such aircraft and contributed to the injury, death, or loss, the guest can recover from the owner or operator[viii].

Further, a person will not have any cause of action if s/he willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury.

To establish willful and wanton misconduct, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the defendant consciously performed an act with the realization that his/her conduct in all probability will produce the precise result which it produces and brings harm to the decedent[ix].

Under certain jurisdictions, intoxication of the owner or operator does not bar recovery by the guest from the owner or operator[x].

Where a person is invited to ride by an employee who has no authority to give such an invitation, the carrier is under no duty to the party accepting such invitation to exercise care to avoid injury to such person[xi].

In Ayer v. Boyle, 37 Cal. App. 3d 822 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1974), the court held that a certain airplane guest statute violates the state and federal guarantees of equal protection of the laws and is therefore unconstitutional because the court observed that there is no other rational purpose justifying treating airplane guests differently from other guests.

[i] Walthew v. Davis, 201 Va. 557 (Va. 1960).

[ii] Osburn v. Pilgrim, 246 Ga. 688 (Ga. 1980).

[iii] Sammons v. Webb, 86 Ga. App. 382 (Ga. Ct. App. 1952).

[iv] Whittemore v. Lockheed Aircraft Corp., 51 Cal. App. 2d 605 (Cal. App. 1942).

[v] Halbert v. Berlinger, 127 Cal. App. 2d 6 (Cal. App. 1954).

[vi] Lineas Aereas Paraguayas (LAP) v. Fairchild Hiller Corp., 557 F.2d 402 (4th Cir. Md. 1977).

[vii] Whittemore v. Lockheed Aircraft Corp., 51 Cal. App. 2d 605 (Cal. App. 1942).

[viii] Hahn v. United States, 535 F. Supp. 132 (D.S.D. 1982).

[ix] Id.

[x] Johnston v. Stoker, 685 P.2d 539 (Utah 1984).

[xi] United States v. Alexander, 234 F.2d 861 (4th Cir. N.C. 1956).

Inside Duty of Owner or Operator to Guest or Occupant in Aircraft