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Aviation Accidents: Airplane and Helicopter Crashes


Each lawyer of the top rated Joe Griffith Law Firm has a wealth of experience in the legal fields of personal injury and wrongful death litigation and handles cases involving an aviation accident or airplane, jet plane or helicopter accident. Our lawyers are located in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and devote 100% of their practices to litigation. Serious and catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death litigation are a major focus of our practice. Lead by former federal prosecutor Joseph P. Griffith, Jr., the Joe Griffith Law Firm is designated as an AV rated firm by the prestigious Martindale-Hubbell® attorney rating company, signifying the highest possible ranking for legal ability and ethics as judged by peers in the legal profession. Every attorney at our firm is dedicated to providing outstanding legal service to each of our clients and will fight to obtain all of the compensation due our clients under the law. Client satisfaction is our number one goal.

Aviation Accident Background Information

Airplane, jet plane, and helicopter travel have become increasingly popular in modern society. Daily commutes in a plane or helicopter are often necessary for the speed and convenience that these types of travel provide. Most airline passengers take these modes of transportation for granted because the threat of an accident is exceedingly rare. However, anyone who has stepped into a cockpit knows that these marvels of modern technology are exceedingly complex machines with highly advanced engines, navigation systems, communications systems, air pressure systems, landing gear systems, de-icing systems, etc.... They must be well designed, manufactured to stringent specifications, scrupulously maintained, and professionally operated. When an airplane, jet plane or helicopter has a defective design, is improperly manufactured, or negligently maintained or operated, a serious aviation disaster may occur. When an aviation accident occurs, each victim generally suffers severe emotional and physical personal injury or wrongful death. Our lawyers at Joe Griffith Law Firm stand ready to assist you and your loved ones in the event of an aviation disaster.

The Federal Aviation Administration

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the United States government agency with primary responsibility for the safety of civil aviation. Strict federal and state laws and regulations have been promulgated to govern the airline industry and to protect each passenger from personal injury or wrongful death.

Causes of an Aviation Accident, Airplane or Helicopter Crash

The following is a non-exclusive list of common causes of an aviation accident, including an airplane, jet plane or helicopter crash:
  • Pilot error or negligence
  • Engine failure
  • Aircraft structural integrity defect
  • Manufacturer’s aircraft design defect
  • Runway incursion
  • Faulty or defective equipment
  • Weather
  • Software system failure
  • Fueling negligence
  • Hydraulic system failure
  • Lack of pilot training or supervision
  • Turbulence
  • Negligence in the repair of the aircraft
  • Faulty maintenance of the aircraft
  • Defective replacement parts
  • Careless approach or landing
  • Negligence during a take-off
  • Fixed Base Operations (FBO) negligence
  • Sudden depressurization
  • FAA statutory violations
  • Improper storage of cargo
  • FAA regulatory violations
  • Inadequate flight or pre-flight security
  • Defective tires
  • Pilot inebriation, intoxication or drunkenness
  • Careless passenger screening
  • Failure to file a proper flight plan
  • Failure to follow Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)
  • Negligence of a stewardess or flight attendant
  • Flight Service Station (FSS) negligence
  • Defective fuel tank
  • Air traffic controller carelessness
  • Microburst wind shear
  • Failure to follow Visual Flight Rules (VFR)

NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD INVESTIGATION

Determining the true cause of a helicopter, jet plane or airplane accident or crash is difficult. The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) is the federal agency in charge of investigating the cause of an aviation accident. NTSB representatives quickly arrive at the scene of every airplane or helicopter accident in an effort to determine the cause thereof. Representatives of the aircraft manufacturer, carrier, and component part companies usually arrive at the scene as well in order to obtain evidence in which to mount a defense. It is critical for an injured victim or relative to hire an aviation law firm as quickly as possible in order to investigate the cause of an aviation accident. Besides the NTSB and FAA, depending on the location and circumstances of an aviation accident, other agencies may be involved in an airplane crash investigation, including, but not limited to, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), Department of Defense (“DOD”), Department of Justice (“DOJ”), Department of State (“DOS”) and state and foreign investigative authorities. Victim relief agencies such as the American Red Cross, Department of Health and Human Services (“HSS”) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) may lend support to those affected by an aviation disaster. While the NTSB issues a report on probable cause, generally, the cause determinations found in these reports are not admissible in evidence at trial. In re Air Crash Disaster at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, 780 F.Supp. 1207 (N.D.Ill. 1991).

See the Top 25 Aviation Disasters

When the NTSB is notified of a major accident, it launches a “Go Team,” which varies in size depending on the severity of the accident and the complexity of the issues involved. The Go Team may consist of experts in as many as fourteen different specialties, coordinated by the investigator-in-charge. Each expert manages a group of other specialists from government agencies and industry in collecting the facts and determining the conditions and circumstances surrounding the accident. The investigative groups formed vary, depending on the nature of the accident, and may look into areas such as structures, systems, power plants, human performance, fire and explosion, meteorology, radar data, event recorders, and witness statements. After an investigation is completed, a detailed narrative report is prepared that analyzes the investigative record and identifies the probable cause of the accident.

NTSB Reports

AIRPLANE BLACK BOXES

One of the most critical aspects of an aviation accident investigation is to locate and preserve the airplane’s black box. There are actually two “black boxes” - one is a flight data recorder and the other is a cockpit voice recorder. In addition to containing locator beacons, these instruments record a wide variety of information, including speed and altitude or the voice communications within the cockpit. An aviation accident attorney should be immediately retained to preserve wreckage, acquire radar and weather data, locate and interview key witnesses, take and preserve photographs and videotapes, retain expert consultants, ensure that relevant FAA Air Traffic Control tape recordings are preserved, protect client rights during initial interviews, identify legal issues and evaluate the potential liability of responsible parties.

NON-CARRIERS ARE HELD TO A GENERAL NEGLIGENCE STANDARD

A determination of what laws apply to an aviation accident is generally governed by whether a private civilian aircraft or a common carrier aircraft is involved. Private civilian aircraft, which are not operated as common carriers, are typically governed by a general negligence standard which requires the use of reasonable due care in the operation of the aircraft. Long v. Clinton Aviation, 180 F. 2d 665 (10th Cir. 1950) (pilot is required to use that ordinary care which an experienced pilot under the same or similar circumstance would use). An owner of a civilian general aviation aircraft may be liable for an accident, personal injury or wrongful death if there was negligence in the operation or maintenance of the aircraft.

COMMERCIAL AIRLINES ARE HELD TO THE HIGHEST STANDARD OF CARE

An airline carrier, such as passenger or commuter airline, owes a much higher duty to protect its passengers. Because an airline carrier is in the business of transporting large groups of people, the law of a common carrier law requires it to use the highest care to prevent an airplane accident or crash and resulting personal injury or wrongful death to its passengers. In American Airlines, Inc. v. United States, 418 F.2d 180 (5th Cir. 1989), the court held that “American Airlines owed its passengers the highest degree of care and to be exonerated had to prove that the 'crash could not have been prevented it by the exercise of the utmost skill and foresight.’” (emphasis added).

Airlines Operating in North America

Fact Pattern Examples in an Airplane Crash Case

The following is a discussion of an explosive cause in an air crash case. It is an excerpt from the case of In re Air Crash Disaster at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, 1991 WL 279005 (N.D.Ill. 1991), and contains the district court’s opinion in a pre-trial ruling wherein defendant McDonnell Douglas had moved to exclude admission into evidence of prior similar accidents as well as the ostensibly legal conclusions of the plaintiffs’ experts:

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 crashed at Sioux City, Iowa, following a total loss of the hydraulic powered flight controls in the McDonnell Douglas designed and manufactured DC-10. The DC-10 operated with three separate and independent hydraulic systems. Each hydraulic system had its own separate fluids and pumps and was powered by a separate engine. The three-system design incorporated a degree of redundancy into the DC-10's hydraulic systems. The failure of any one of the three hydraulic systems could be compensated for by the operation of the remaining two systems.

The loss of hydraulic power in Flight 232 occurred as a result of a catastrophic, uncontained explosion of the DC-10's second engine, located at the rear of the plane. The engine explosion occurred as a result of a metallurgical flaw in the fan disk of the plane's rear engine. The metallurgical flaw caused a high-energy discharge of engine debris that apparently severed hydraulic fluid lines running to all three hydraulic systems. Consequently, the engine explosion triggered a total loss of hydraulic fluid from all three of the DC-10's hydraulic systems. The flight crew was unable to manipulate any of the aircraft's flight controls. The crew maneuvered the plane by using differential engine power from the DC-10's two remaining engines and ultimately brought the aircraft in for a crash landing at Sioux City, Iowa. Of 296 people on board, 112 were killed in the crash.

The following is a discussion of pre-flight negligence in an air crash case. It is an excerpt from the case of In re Air Crash Disaster, 86 F.3d 498 (6th Cir. 1996):

Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed during takeoff from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on August 16, 1987. The aircraft was an MD-80 model manufactured by McDonnell Douglas. The plane failed to gain sufficient altitude after takeoff, and struck a lamppost in the lot of a nearby National Car Rental office. The impact sheared off part of the wing, and the plane subsequently crashed into a highway overpass on Middlebelt Road. Evidence at trial indicated that the aircraft's crew had not properly set the plane's wing flaps and slats, which are necessary for lift. Fifteen seconds after takeoff, the plane was forty-two feet above the ground-according to the standard flight plan, it should have been at an altitude of 752 feet.

Aircraft Manufacturers

There are many different aircraft manufacturers and aircraft component part manufacturers, including, but not limited to:

Aero Designs, Aeronca, Aerospatiale, Airbus, Alarus, Avcraft, Aviat, Beechcraft or Beech Aircraft Corporation, Boeing, British Aerospace, Bombardier, Cessna, Challenger, Cirrus, Commander, Dassault, Diamond Aircraft Industries, Eclipse, Embraer, Enstrom, Eurocopter, Fairchild, Gulfstream, Honeywell, Hughes, Learjet, Liberty, Lockheed, Luscombe, Maule, McDonnell Douglas, Mitsubishi, Mooney, North American Navion, Piaggio, Pilatus, Piper, Pitts, Pratt & Whitney, Rans, Raytheon, Revolution, Robinson, Rockwell, Slingsby, Socata, and Tiger.

Compensation Caps

When an airline carrier is involved in a crash of an international flight, a victim’s right of recovery may be subject to international agreements which limit the amount of compensation available. The Warsaw Convention and Montreal Agreements or Protocols may limit the amount of recovery a victim can obtain from an airline unless reckless conduct is involved. Some airline carriers have agreed to waive the caps under certain circumstances. In domestic air crashes, there may be state statutory caps on a victim’s recovery, depending upon the jurisdiction.

Statutes of Limitation

There are time limits on bringing a personal injury lawsuit in the state of South Carolina known as statutes of limitations. See S.C. Code §§ 15-3-530(5); 15-3-535. The statute of limitations for a personal injury suit governed by South Carolina law is three years. This generally means that a plaintiff must bring his suit within three years of an injury-causing accident. Most other states have similar statutes of limitation. In 1994, Congress passed a federal statute called the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), which gave qualifying general aviation manufacturer’s immunity from certain product liability lawsuits. GARA only protects manufacturers of aircraft which carry less than twenty passengers and which are not used in scheduled passenger carrying operations, and it does not provide protection for manufacturers of commercial airliners. GARA imposes an 18-year statute of repose which is measured from the date of delivery of the aircraft to its first purchaser.

Suing the United States Government

The statutes of limitations are different for negligence suits against the federal government pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Under the FTCA, an administrative tort claim must generally be presented to the subject federal agency within two years. Once a timely administrative tort claim has been filed, there is no statute of limitations on bringing a suit unless the federal agency denies the claim, in which case a suit must be brought in federal court within six months after the denial. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 1402, 2401, 2675. An FTCA action is generally available when the negligence of a government employee, such as an FAA air traffic controller, acting within the scope of his duties, causes, in whole or in part, an aviation accident.

Aviation Accident Links

The Joe Griffith Law Firm is a Charleston, South Carolina (SC) law firm that concentrates in personal injury and wrongful death litigation and handles cases involving an aviation accident or airplane, jet plane or helicopter accident. Our attorneys will investigate the facts, assess your claim, determine which parties and insurance companies are to be held responsible, organize all of the details of your case and pursue it vigorously in settlement negotiations or at trial. If you or your loved ones have a personal injury or wrongful death case related to an aircraft accident, please contact the Joe Griffith Law Firm.

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