A recent cluster of aircraft failures, including an emergency landing due to a broken window on a Southwest Airlines jetliner en route to Newark, have brought aircraft defects back into the national spotlight. In New Jersey, the law requires manufacturers to design aircraft with these risks in mind to avoid aviation accidents. Legal responsibility for failed products, like aircraft, is known as products liability.
When a defective aircraft is involved in an accident, the manufacturer of the aircraft may be held responsible for the accident under the legal concept of “strict liability.” This body of law was developed to protect consumers from products that are unreasonably dangerous when used normally. In aviation, poor design of the product can lead to serious injury and often death, making design defects dangerous beyond reason when an aircraft is being used as intended.
Not all defects occur at the design stage, though. An aircraft may be exquisitely designed, but an error in the manufacturing process, such as the use of structurally unsound materials, may create a fatal flaw in the aircraft. Faulty maintenance on the part of the manufacturer or carrier can also result in an unreasonably dangerous product.
When a defective aircraft is involved in an accident, a victim (plaintiff) needs to demonstrate three things to invoke strict liability. First, the plaintiff must show that the defect existed in the aircraft when it was delivered from the manufacturer or maintenance facility. The facts must then establish that the aircraft was being used in a reasonable manner or as intended by the manufacturer. Finally, the plaintiff must show that the defective product was the cause of the injury.
While the concept of strict liability may seem straightforward, it often takes an experienced attorney to navigate the nuances of such cases. In the case of aviation accidents, the role played by a product defect is often weighed against other factors, such pilot error. This is why aviation-specific experience is important when consulting an attorney about an accident caused by an aircraft defect.
Source: Findlaw.com, “Product Liability and Aviation Accidents,” accessed on May 7, 2018