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[i].
Each pilot is responsible for damage to a person or property caused by aircraft directed by him/her or under his/her control which results from the negligence of such pilot, either in controlling the aircraft or while giving instructions to another[ii]. If the pilot is the agent or employee of another, the pilot and his/her principal or employer will be responsible for the damage.
As to passengers, the liability of the owner or pilot of an aircraft will be determined by the rules of law applicable to torts[iii].
Properly handled by a competent pilot exercising reasonable care, an airplane is not an inherently dangerous instrument, so that in the absence of statute the ordinary rules of negligence control[iv].
The owner or operator of an airship is only liable for injury inflicted upon another when such damage is caused by a defect in the plane or its negligent operation.
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[v]. The strict accountability rule is based upon the reason that there is nothing the person on the ground can do to protect against the aircraft.
In some states, the law imposing absolute liability on owners of motor vehicles does not apply to airplanes[vi].
In some jurisdictions, it is unlawful for any person to operate an aircraft in the air, on the ground, or water, while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotics, or other habit-forming drug, or to operate an aircraft in the air, on the ground, or water in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another[vii].
The law holds air traffic controllers to the standard of ordinary care with respect to their duties, which duties are concurrent with those of the pilots[viii]. Air traffic controllers have a general duty to promote the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic[ix].
However, air traffic controllers have no duty to warn a pilot of a condition of which s/he should already be aware based on his/her training, experience, and personal observations[x]. Further, the Federal Aviation Act limits liability solely to the pilots of aircraft[xi].
When an owner of an aircraft expressly or impliedly gives permission to another to use the aircraft, the owner is liable for any negligent, wrongful act, or omission on the part of the person so using the aircraft[xii]. If that user expressly or impliedly gives permission to a third person to use the aircraft, the owner is negligent for any wrongful act or omission of the third person.
A bailment is created where the owner of an airplane delivers it to operators of a firm engaged in selling, repairing, and checking airplanes for the purpose of having the plane serviced[xiii]. The bailment contract is not ended until the owner recognizes the completion of the work, including the satisfactory test flights, even though those flights were flown by the owner’s pilot.
Under the common law of bailment, a bailor is liable for a third party’s injuries only if[xiv]:
- s/he supplied the chattel in question;
- the chattel was defective at the time it was supplied;
- the defect could have been discovered by a reasonable inspection, when inspection is required; and
- the defect was the proximate cause of the injury.
So far as the liability of the owner of a plane who rents it to another is concerned, in the absence of a statute, or an agency relationship, there is no absolute liability to the bailor for the acts of the bailee[xv]. Thus, a bailor of a plane is not liable for the acts of a pilot to whom the plane is rented for ground damage caused by the acts of the pilot.
The liability of the proprietor or operator of a flight training school for the injury or death of a trainee is applicable as per the rules and legal principles governing the relationship of master and servant[xvi].
However, in Lange v. Nelson-Ryan Flight Service, Inc., 259 Minn. 460 (Minn. 1961), the court held that although a trainee is responsible for his/her own negligence when flying solo, when flying with a flight instructor a trainee is a passenger and the responsibility of the flying school to him/her is determined by the legal standard of a carrier.
[i] Lange v. Nelson-Ryan Flight Service, Inc., 259 Minn. 460 (Minn. 1961).
[ii] Nava v. Truly Nolen Exterminating, 140 Ariz. 497 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984).
[iii] Johnson v. Central Aviation Corp., 103 Cal. App. 2d 102 (Cal. App. 1951).
[iv] Boyd v. White, 128 Cal. App. 2d 641 (Cal. App. 1954).
[v] Brunt v. Chicago Mill & Lumber Co., 243 Miss. 607 (Miss. 1962).
[vi] D’Aquilla v. Pryor, 122 F. Supp. 346 (D.N.Y. 1954).
[vii] Brunt v. Chicago Mill & Lumber Co., 243 Miss. 607 (Miss. 1962).
[viii] Hensley v. United States, 728 F. Supp. 716 (S.D. Fla. 1989).
[ix] Sexton v. United States, 132 F. Supp. 2d 967 (M.D. Fla. 2000).
[xi] McDaniel v. Ritter, 556 So. 2d 303 (Miss. 1989).
[xii] White v. Inbound Aviation, 69 Cal. App. 4th 910 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 1999).
[xiii] Nava v. Truly Nolen Exterminating, 140 Ariz. 497 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984).
[xiv] Matei v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 35 F.3d 1142 (7th Cir. Ill. 1994).
[xv] Boyd v. White, 128 Cal. App. 2d 641 (Cal. App. 1954).
[xvi] Weadock v. Eagle Indem. Co., 15 So. 2d 132, 138 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1943).