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Product Liability and Aviation Accidents

While pilot error usually plays some part in aviation accidents, mechanical problems with the aircraft or its component parts may contribute to the accident or the severity of the injuries suffered. In such cases, the manufacturer of the aircraft (or the manufacturer of a component part) may share the legal blame with pilots for a crash -- and for any deaths or injuries caused by the accident -- under a legal theory known as "strict liability."

What Is Strict Liability?

The doctrine of "strict product liability" was created to make it easier to sue manufacturers in product defect cases by switching the focus to the safety of the product, rather than the conduct of the person using the product (in this context the aircraft and its components). The judges who created these laws have said that manufacturers in a high-risk industry must design, manufacture and warn in accordance with the foreseeable risks of using their product.

Unlike cases against an airplane pilot or carrier, a strict liability claim against a manufacturer does not require proof that negligence caused the accident. In almost all states, a victim can hold a manufacturer or seller "strictly liable" if it is shown that a defect in the product was a cause of the injuries.

Product liability law varies from state to state. In several states, a manufacturer may be held strictly liable for a defective product if the product is "unreasonably dangerous" for use by an ordinary consumer. A growing majority of states use a slightly different analysis called a "risk-benefit" analysis. In those states a manufacturer may be held strictly liable if the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner. The "risk-benefit" analysis test requires the jury to decide if the risk associated with the design of the product outweighs the benefits of the design. In an aviation strict liability claim, the jury will decide whether there is an alternative, mechanically feasible design for the product that could have been implemented by the manufacturer at the time it was sold. The focus is on the "state-of the-art" at the time of manufacture.

Three Types of Strict Product Liability

To establish strict liability in a product liability lawsuit, the injured person (the "plaintiff") must show that:

  • The product was defective when it left the manufacturer or distributor's (the "defendant") control;
  • The product was used in the intended manner or a reasonably foreseeable manner;
  • The product caused plaintiff's injury.

Strict liability can arise as a result of a defect in design or manufacture, or a failure to warn.

Design Defect

A design defect is one in which a whole product line or every product from a particular model is dangerously deficient. This is where courts apply the "unreasonably dangerous" test or a combination of the consumer expectations and "risk-benefit" test to determine if the design is defective.

Manufacturing Defect

If the manufacturer fails to produce the product correctly, a manufacturing defect may exist. This means that if the finished product is substandard in comparison with identical products in that product line, the manufacturer may be held liable for causing the anomaly and failing to catch the defect before the product was sold to a consumer. Manufacturing defects include the use of substandard materials, faulty assembly, etc.

Failure-to-Warn

If manufacturers fail to provide adequate warnings or instructions for use, they can be held strictly liable for failure to warn. There are two types of warnings:

  • General instructions that accompany the product. A good way to look at this is that the instructions are a part of the product. If the instructions are ambiguous or insufficient, the product cannot be used safely (i.e. operating limits and weight limits).
  • Specific warnings of a danger that the manufacturer knew or should have known about at the time of sale or discovered after sale. (i.e. emergency procedures, placards in a cockpit, warning labels on equipment, etc.)
Getting Help

Aviation claims against manufacturers of aircraft or component parts require a detailed understanding of aviation, FAA rules and regulations, and specific laws related to aviation. If you have suffered injury or the death of a loved one due to an aviation accident, contact an attorney with experience in aviation litigation.

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