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How liability works in an airplane accident involving a privately owned aircraft (as opposed to a commercial aircraft)

Aviation accidents occur with both private aircraft and commercial aircraft. The liability issues involved in a Texas airplane accident concerning each of these aircraft types will be similar, but there will be differences as well.

While both aircraft owners/operators generally have the same duty of care to its passengers, other aspects such as insurance requirements, pilot training, and aircraft maintenance issues may be different.

The bottom line is though determining liability in a Texas plane accident is generally accomplished in the same manner, how that liability is dealt with is often vastly different. What this means to you as a person injured or mourning the loss of a loved one as the result of an aviation accident is the amount, timing, and availability of your recovery for damages will vary based on the type of aircraft involved.

Duty of Care

In most aviation accident claims, the injured party's case stems from the negligence of the aircraft owner or commercial airline carrier. Negligence is the failure to act in a manner that a reasonable person would have under similar circumstances to prevent foreseeable harm to others. Both the owners/operators of private aircraft as well as commercial airlines owe a duty of care to their passengers to operate their aircraft in a safe and reasonable manner free from carelessness or recklessness. However, there are some differences. The owner/operator of a private aircraft has a high duty of care for passengers, but the commercial airline has a higher standard to meet. Commercial airlines are called "common" carriers because they hold themselves out to the general public as such and will allow anyone who purchases a ticket to fly on one of their airplanes. Commercial airlines have more stringent guidelines and the Federal Aviation Administration exercises control over commercial carriers by imposing uniform standards of operation, safety standards and other regulations.

With the more stringent standards in place for the commercial carrier versus the private aircraft owner, there will be differences in the area of employee (namely pilot) training and licensing, insurance requirements, and maintenance related activities. These differences are important to note and understand because these are the areas where much of the investigation and later claims from the accident will arise.

Pilot Training and Licensing - Private and Commercial

The Federal Aviation Administration provides regulations and guidance regarding the licensing of pilots. The FAA requires that pilots who wish to work transporting passengers obtain a commercial pilot's license. To obtain this licensing the applicant must be at least 18 years old, pass the regulation and safety exams, and have at least 250 hours of flight experience. For most private aircraft owners, this type of commercial pilot's license and the required continuing education is the extent of the licensing training they will receive. This licensing in most instances will be sufficient for the jobs they perform as a pilot. Many private aircraft are for small business, corporate, or personal use and further licensing or certification by the pilot for this kind of aircraft may be unnecessary. In contrast, pilots that fly for a commercial airline or common carrier are required to obtain additional training and certifications by both the FAA and the commercial airlines themselves. The additional requirements for commercial pilots include a higher age requirement (they must be at least 23), additional hours of flight experience (at least 1500), and additional exams and training related to cockpit instruments, flying in extreme weather, and other safety measures.

The differences in requirements for private aircraft pilots versus commercial airline pilots means that in an aviation accident the pilot's actions will not be viewed the same. The expectations regarding skill level, training, and experience will be higher for a commercial airline pilot than a private aircraft pilot. The actions and reactions of the pilot will be compared against those of other pilots possessing the same skill level and performing the same kind of duties to determine the reasonableness of the pilot's actions in an accident. The private aircraft pilot's actions will compared against the reasonableness standard for other private aircraft pilots with the same skill level and experience, not with the skill level and expertise of a commercial airline pilot because the expectations are different and vice versa. However, the pilot's actions will still be viewed in the light of their level of performance and if carelessness or recklessness was involved.

Additionally in both cases the actions of the private aircraft owner or the commercial airline will be considered in the context of the pilot they chose/hired to perform for them. The pilot's negligence in operating the aircraft will be considered as well as the owner's negligence in hiring them to operate the aircraft will be considered. For example, in a commercial airline aviation accident the investigation reveals that the pilot had a history of failed performance tests and poor decision making skills in emergency situations, but the airline hired them anyway. If pilot error is found to be the cause of the accident the commercial airline could be deemed negligent in its hiring of such a pilot. The same consideration will be made when a private aircraft is involved as well.

Insurance Requirements

Though the insurance requirements exist for private or commercial aircraft are not directly related to liability determinations when there has been an aviation accident, understanding the differences between the insurance coverage available when your case involves a privately owned aircraft and commercial aircraft is important. The FAA requires that commercial aircraft obtain insurance or self insure for accidents and property damage for their fleet of airplanes. The insurance has to meet minimum amounts for passenger injuries, injuries to non-passengers and damage to property on the ground. However, privately owned aircraft are not subject to these insurance requirements unless they are used more from a commercial stand point and their primary use is to generate revenue from the transport of passengers or cargo. Most privately owned aircraft do not fall into this category and will not be required to carry liability insurance unless their state requires them to do so. This means there may or may not be any insurance to cover your injuries after an accident with a privately owned aircraft.

Even when there is insurance available after an aviation accident it will not be easy to get your recovery right away. The commercial airlines, their lawyers and their insurance carriers will not make paying on your injury or wrongful death claim a priority. However, at least you know there is insurance available. It may not be easy to settle your case but there are some assurances that at the end of it there is a source of payment for your claims. When handling a claim against the owner/operator of a privately owned aircraft not only will litigating the case be difficult, but because these owners are typically not required to maintain liability insurance there may be little money available for your damages. Even if the owner has insurance the policies are typically small and may not fully compensate you for your injuries. This is why it is important to have an attorney working for you in your aviation accident injury or wrongful death claim.

Aircraft Maintenance Issues

When an aircraft is manufactured it must meet the airworthiness requirements set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is true for both private aircraft as well as commercial aircraft. However, the maintenance of the aircraft is left to the respective owners of the airplanes. Commercial aircraft have extensive maintenance schedules that must be followed to keep the airplanes in functional working order. The manufacturers provide the recommended maintenance schedule to the commercial airlines and the FAA requires that the commercial airlines meet the scheduled maintenance requirements. If there has been an aviation accident and mechanical failure is discovered to have caused or contributed to the accident, the manufacturer of the aircraft may face liability if the mechanical failure is related to a defect in design or construction. However, if this is not the case their involvement in the investigation may be minimal.

Maintenance must be performed on private aircraft as well, but they do not face the same requirements that the commercial airline carrier faces from the FAA. You can think of the private aircraft maintenance almost in the same manner that you think about the maintenance performed on your car. You know it is necessary to prevent major break downs, but if you miss an oil change or forget to maintain your fluids there is no one to hold you accountable for this. The maintenance on a private aircraft is similar. The FAA is not there inspecting the quality of the maintenance of the aircraft or enforcing its regulations regarding aircraft maintenance on the private aircraft owner. Further if an aviation accident occurs due to mechanical failure, but the failure was related to poor maintenance and instead design flaws by the manufacturer, including a products liability claim against the manufacturer won't be possible. The aircraft owner will probably be completely liable for the accident even though a mechanical part may have failed. Their inability to maintain the aircraft will not be imparted upon the aircraft manufacturer in a case like this. And as mentioned earlier in this article, when an owner of a privately owned aircraft is liable for an accident there may be little or no insurance to cover the damages for your injury or a family's wrongful death claim against them.

Generally speaking aviation accidents in Texas require a lengthy and often difficult litigation period, be it with a private aircraft or a commercial airline. Investigating the accident, determining liability, understanding the financial viability and insurance available for your damages and dealing with the defendants involved can be more than the average person can effectively manage on their own. Getting an experienced attorney involved in your case as early as possible will be a positive step in getting your claim resolved with the best possible for you or your loved ones. Our attorneys at Grossman Law Offices can help you with your claim regardless of the size of the aircraft involved. Call us at 1-855-326-0000 today.