The rules of negligence like duty, degree of care, burden of proof, and liability remain the same for airplanes as for other carriers[i].
The general liability of a carrier is that s/he is chargeable as an insurer of the goods and accountable for any damage or loss that may happen in the course of the conveyance, unless arising from an inevitable accident like an act of God or public enemy[ii].
A common carrier cannot restrict his/her liability by notice, verbal, written, or printed, even when brought to the knowledge of the owner or employer[iii].
However, a common carrier has a right to limit his/her responsibility by special contract[iv]. In R.R. Co. v. Lockwood, 84 U.S. 357 (U.S. 1873), the court held that special contracts, made by common carriers with their customers, limiting their liability, are good and valid so far as they are just and reasonable. However, such special contracts should not attempt to shield themselves from losses resulting through negligence or misconduct[v].
Also, the liability of a common carrier is limited to that of an ordinary bailee for hire, in reference to the particular limitations in the contract[vi]. It is not, therefore, responsible for negligence, or the want of ordinary care of persons over whom it had no control.
The liability of the common carrier extends beyond that of losses by his/her own fault or omissions of duty. S/he is liable for losses by accident, mistake, and numerous unavoidable occurrences not included within the act of God or the public enemy excepted perils.
The carrier is held liable even if a loss occurs through the wrongful act of a third person which neither the carrier nor his/her agents could have avoided, or any other of the many unavoidable circumstances not within the two common law exceptions[vii].
Thus, the liabilities of a common carrier may be classified according to their nature into two distinct categories[viii]:
- liability for losses by neglect on the part of the carrier or his/her agents, which is the liability of a bailee, arising from omission of duty.
- liability for losses by accident, mistake, or other unavoidable occurrence, without any actual fault on the part of the carrier. This is the liability of an insurer and founded upon a principle of the common law.
In an action for personal injury, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties[ix]. If some other state however has a more significant relationship with the occurrence and the parties as to the particular issue involved, the law of the state with the more significant relationship will govern[x].
Under certain jurisdictions, the law applicable to the theory and amount of damages recoverable for a wrongful death is that of the domicile of the decedents and their beneficiaries[xi]. Some jurisdictions have abandoned the strict lex loci delicti rule in favor of a more flexible rule which permits analysis of the policies and interests underlying the particular issue before the court[xii].
For choice of law analysis, the distinction between the issue of liability on the one hand and the question of damages on the other hand is crucial, for when liability is at issue, it is more than likely that the law of the place of the tort would control[xiii]. The disposition of other issues, such as that of damages, must turn however on the law of the jurisdiction which has the strongest interest in the resolution of the particular issue presented.
The wrongful death statutes of some states recognize the application of the principle of lex loci delicti in wrongful death cases and the measure of damages is governed by the law of the place where the accident occurred[xiv].
[i] Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1 (Pa. 1964).
[ii] New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants’ Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. 344, 381 (U.S. 1848).
[iii] Davidson v. Graham, 2 Ohio St. 131 (Ohio 1853).
[iv] York Co. v. Cent. R.R., 70 U.S. 107 (U.S. 1866).
[vi] Bank of Ky. v. Adams Express Co., 93 U.S. 174 (U.S. 1876).
[vii] Davidson v. Graham, 2 Ohio St. 131 (Ohio 1853).
[ix] Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1 (Pa. 1964).
[xi] In re Air Crash Disaster at Boston, 399 F. Supp. 1106 (D. Mass. 1975).
[xii] Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1 (Pa. 1964).
[xiii] Gordon v. Eastern Air Lines, Inc., 391 F. Supp. 31 (S.D.N.Y. 1975).
[xiv] Goranson v. Capital Airlines, Inc., 345 F.2d 750 (6th Cir. Ohio 1965).