Who Can Be Held Responsible for Injuries and Deaths Caused by Plane Crashes?

December 5, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

According to statistical studies, flying is far safer than driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2008 compilation of driving and flying statistics, for example, revealed more than 5 million U.S. driving accidents for that year and only 20 accidents for U.S. air carriers. Based on the study’s results, NHTSA calculated the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash to be 1 in 98 and the odds of dying in a plane crash to be 1 in 7,178 over a person’s lifetime. Yet, the public remains rightly concerned when plane crashes, including those caused by mid-air collisions, occur.

On September 27, 2014, for example, a double-plane crash in Lancaster, New York, resulted in the death of two people and the injury of two others during a youth aviation program at the Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport. According to a police officer who investigated the crash, the program involved the Experimental Airplane Association and was intended to “expose youth to aviation.” A report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed that the two single-engine planes involved in the collision were a Cessna 172 and an amateur-built Seary aircraft. The operator of the Seary was able to make an emergency landing in a field, but the Cessna 172, which was occupied by a 78-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy, crashed, resulting in the death of both occupants. Though at least one eye witness has reported seeing the planes “clip wings,” the exact cause of the accident is still under investigation by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB).

Who can be held responsible for injuries or deaths caused in plane accidents? In cases such as the accident between the amateur Seary and the Cessna 172 in Lancaster, New York, more than one individual and/or entity may be subject to liability.

Legal Responsibility for Injuries and Deaths Resulting from Plane Collisions and other Aircraft Accidents

Mid-air collisions between aircraft larger than those involved in the Lancaster crash are less common than they once were. Federal regulations requiring the installation in such aircraft of Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) have contributed to the decrease in mid-air collisions between larger planes. TCAS allow a pilot to monitor the air traffic around an aircraft and provide details regarding the location of nearby traffic. More advanced systems also provide a pilot with specific instructions for avoiding nearby traffic.

Under Title 14, Part 91 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), however, small, non-commercial aircraft that fly in the United States are not required to have TCAS. Though the owners of small non-commercial aircraft may purchase TCAS, the system will not provide the location of other aircraft that do not have transponders. This system of avoiding mid-air collisions is not foolproof, according to many who use it. Nevertheless, the Lancaster collision may have been avoided if both planes had been equipped with TCAS.

Can the owners and/or operators of planes involved in mid-air collisions be held responsible for the injuries and deaths caused by the crash if their planes were not equipped with TCAS? The answer to this question will depend on the circumstances of the particular case.

The violation by an owner or operator of a plane of any Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) would be considered negligence on the part of the aircraft owner or operator in a negligence action brought to recover damages for someone’s injury or death sustained in an aircraft accident. In order to hold such a defendant liable, however, the plaintiff would also need to establish that the violation of the rule in question was a cause of the victim’s injury or death. Thus, in a collision between two large commercial aircraft resulting in injuries or deaths, the owner of either aircraft may be held liable for victims’ resulting injuries or deaths if the owner’s failure to install and/or properly maintain TCAS is determined to have been a cause of the collision that resulted in the victims’ injuries or deaths.

In the case of the collision between the small, non-commercial aircraft in Lancaster, New York, however, the absence of TCAS would not be a factor in the determination of the plane owners’ and operators’ liability, since TCAS is not required for such aircraft. Under what circumstances can the owners or operators of smaller planes be liable for victims’ injuries and deaths?

The owner of a plane may be found directly liable for accident injuries and deaths caused by negligently maintaining the plane or by negligently allowing an incompetent pilot to fly the plane. The non-owner operator of an aircraft may be held liable for injuries and deaths caused by the operator’s negligence. Such negligence may include a pilot’s violation of any applicable FAR, decision to fly in bad weather, or failure to keep an adequate lookout for other planes in the area. In the case of the collision between the Cessna and Seary aircraft, both operators may be found to have negligently contributed to the accident by flying too close to each other.

The Dangers Posed by Small Non-commercial Aircraft Operated by Negligent or Inexperienced Pilots Are a Serious Concern

Today’s writer is Jeff Killino, a respected litigation attorney and the managing partner of The Killino Firm, P.C. Attorney Killino has extensive experience with all types of accident and wrongful death cases, including those arising out of airplane accidents caused by owner or operator negligence or defects in aircraft. He has achieved national recognition for his work in accident and personal injury cases, including a product liability action that led to the recall of 450,000 defective tires manufactured in China, on major television networks such as CNN, ABC, FOX, and the Discovery Channel.