In the vast majority of personal injury cases, whether a defendant was negligent is determined by whether they acted as a reasonably prudent person would have in a similar situation.
The perfect example of this would be your typical car accident, where one passenger car strikes another. Neither of the drivers has commercial license, or special training to drive cars. They've just passed the state minimum requirements to get a driver's license. As such, we ask whether or not a reasonably prudent person would have behaved in the same way, in the same circumstances. If the answer is no, then we find that person negligent and they are usually financially liable for their negligence. If the person who caused the accident did act in a reasonably prudent manner, than the law views the accident as unavoidable and there is no liability.
However, there is a small, but important subset of personal injury cases where the standard of care applied to the defendant is much higher. When it is a professional, license-holder, or someone with expertise in a particular area that causes an injury, they can be held to the reasonably prudent professional standard of care. Under this standard, defendants are judged according to how other similarly situated experts would behave in the same situation.
What got us thinking about this particular area of the law, and why it's relevant, was a recent helicopter crash off of the coast of Galveston, Texas.
February 6th Galveston, Texas Helicopter Crash
Some time around a quarter after 7 in the evening, Monday, February 6th, a helicopter crashed off of the coast of Galveston. According to reports, the helicopter was ferrying workers from an off-shore installation to the mainland. Warren Moore, 58, was killed in the accident and 2 unidentified people were injured in the crash.
So far there has been no speculation about the cause of the crash and reports indicate that an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board could take up to a year and a half.
Galveston Helicopter Crash and the Reasonably Prudent Professional Duty of Care
Many people will read about a helicopter, plane, or commercial truck crash and assume that they're treated much like a car accident would be. After all, the common thread in all of these incidents is a moving vehicle. Why should it make that much difference what kind of vehicle moved?
The truth is that each of these accidents is quite different from a typical car crash. While all of these different wrecks involve a vehicle, they also involve licensed professionals, who have to receive numerous hours of training before they're legally permitted to operate these vehicles. This extra training allows those who obtain it to put themselves out as professionals, capable of safely performing a task that most of us can't.
How does being a professional create a higher duty of care under the law?
Imagine two scenarios. In one, an average person is driving down the road, texting on their phone, and causes an accident that severely injures someone in the other car. In the second scenario, things unfold exactly as they did in the first, but the texting driver is a car accident attorney. If both of these accident went to trial, who do you think the jury is going to be inclined to punish more harshly?
The common sense answer is obviously the car accident attorney. Why would a jury be inclined to punish a car accident attorney more severely than the average motorist, despite the fact pattern being exactly the same? Because we intuitively know that a car accident attorney has probably handled numerous cases where a texting driver caused an accident. To put it bluntly, a car accident attorney should know better than to text and drive.
It's easy to understand why after a helicopter or airplane crash, the pilot would be held to a higher duty of care than a motorist who caused a car accident. First, as a society, we recognize that piloting helicopters and planes poses significant risk to pilots, their passengers, as well as to people on the ground. As a result, we have licensing and training requirements that are quite rigorous. We can't just roll out of bed one morning and decide that we're going to start ferrying people around by air.
According to the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, a commercial helicopter must have a minimum of 150 hours of flying time. This trade group also indicates that in practice most introductory jobs require between 500 and 1000 hours of flight time. To put that in perspective, one would have to fly 40 hours a week for between 3 and 6 months just to hit that window.
The higher safety standards that we set for pilots also translates to a higher duty of care when they are accused of negligence. It's easy to see why. If we were to apply the reasonable person standard, then a pilot, or other professional could never be held accountable for their negligence, because most reasonable people cannot do what they do.
Another practical reason to impose a higher standard is that the general public is not in a position to determine whether or not a pilot is qualified to fly. Imagine how chaotic air travel would be, if in addition to the safety protocols that are in place, passengers wandered from plane to plane trying to discern whether or not each pilot was trustworthy and able to fly them to their destination. Flying anywhere would take days, defeating the purpose of flying in the first place.
We're forced to take it on faith that when someone is presented to us as a pilot that they know what they're doing. Part of that faith is that the pilot is going to do everything possible to get us where we need to go without taking unnecessary risks.
In short, the marriage of specialized skills and the desire to make those skills available to those without them, leads to a situation where we license pilots and having higher expectations for their ability than we do for members of the public at large. In turn, these higher expectations, whether they be for doctors, pilots, or lawyers create a higher duty of care under the law. That's why we have the reasonably prudent professional standard of care.
How the Reasonably Prudent Professional Standard Affects Victims
It should be taken with a grain of salt, since they're not an unbiased source, but Boeing contends that 80% of plane and helicopter crashes are the result of pilot error. The remaining 20% is divided between mechanical issues and inclement weather. From these numbers, we can infer that in most crashes, the pilot bears a large portion of the responsibility for the accident.
Most people might hear that a professional is held to a higher standard under the law and think that this makes their case easier. This isn't exactly correct, since it makes proving the case easier, but complicates the means that are needed to prove the case in the first place.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but makes sense when you break it down. It's nice to know that a professional is held to a higher standard, so it takes less to prove they were negligent, but the question then arises, how does one prove that?
For example, most people would be able to tell that a lawyer who misses court dates is committing malpractice. Showing up for court is why people hire lawyers in the first place. However, there was a case a few years ago that involved a lawyer and airline miles. The lawyer recouped airfare expenses that were necessary for the lawyer to meet with the client and make it to a distant court. At the same time the lawyer was accruing airline miles. The client felt that the the lawyer benefiting from these airline miles was an ethics violation and filed a malpractice lawsuit.
The likelihood that anyone outside the legal profession would know whether benefiting from airline miles that were accrued while representing a client is an ethics violation is slim. Therefore, the axis of the case revolved around the testimony of expert witnesses.
Another issue is that in order for the reasonably prudent professional standard to apply, the professional has to be acting in their field of expertise. This means in order to prove negligence, a victim needs someone who can attest to two things:
- The pilot was doing pilot things at the time of the accident.
- The accident was caused by something a reasonably prudent pilot would have done or refrained from doing.
In order for a person to speak knowledgeably to both of these points, they have to be an expert themselves. This means that in order to get the benefit of the higher standard professionals are held to, one needs another person with similar expertise.
Procuring the right expert witness isn't a big obstacle in a case and the costs are generally nominal in the larger context of the case. However, it is important that victims know what they should expect when pursuing justice.
Ultimately, while the law holds professionals to a higher standard, making it easier to get justice when a professional's negligence harms someone, those benefits do not come without some cost.