A products liability claim involves holding the manufacturer or seller of a product accountable for placing a defective product in the stream of commerce. Any party that is responsible for any part of the manufacture of the product could be held liable; and, any seller may also be found liable.

During the production cycle of an item, dozens of parties may be involved. If the resulting product is found to be defective in any way, the following parties could be held liable for any injuries caused:

  • The assembling manufacturer;
  • The wholesaler;
  • The dealer and/or retailer; and
  • The manufacturer of the specific component that was found to be defective.

In terms of the types of defects that may result in liability, there are three main types:

  • Design Defects: Design defects are defects in the design of the product. Regardless of how well the product is manufactured, and how thoroughly a consumer is warned about the product, if the design is defective it is inherently flawed and could lead to potential liability. An example of a design defect would be an item intended for children but is designed with small parts that present a choking hazard;
  • Manufacturing Defects: Although a product’s design may be completely safe, a manufacturing defect may manifest when the manufacturer puts the product together in such a way that the product is rendered unsafe. An example of a manufacturing defect would be a contaminated consumable being sold to consumers; and
  • Defective Warnings: If there is an inadequate warning about the product, there may be grounds for a product liability claim. Defective warning products liability cases may also involve failure to properly instruct a consumer in terms of how to safely use the product. While some products may seem a bit self-explanatory, such as a lighter being flammable, failure to warn consumers of the dangerous properties of a product could result in liability.

What Is Aviation Product Liability? What Are Some Common Legal Issues Associated with Aviation Law?

Aviation product liability refers to legal claims against general aviation manufacturers for aircraft defects and disasters. Generally speaking, most of these suits involve disputes over whether the aircraft accident was caused by the pilot, machine-caused, or a combination of the two. Most aircraft accidents are found to be pilot-caused; in such lawsuits, it will be determined whether the manufacturers should also be held liable for airplane crashes.

There are many legal issues that are covered by aviation law. It is helpful to review these issues before further discussing aviation product liability, because it is not uncommon for many of these issues to coincide.

Personal injury cases in the aviation industry are very common, and often involve:

  • Injuries caused from prolonged sitting in an aircraft seat;
  • Accidents that occur during plane travel, such as those resulting from experiencing turbulence;
  • Emotional distress, which may result from unsafe plane flying or negligent flight attendants; and
  • Slip and fall accidents, generally occurring at airports.

Plane crashes and accidents, although rare, are inevitable and sometimes result in wrongful death. Wrongful death lawsuits may allow family members of the deceased to be compensated for the loss of a family member in an airplane crash. Under the Family Assistance Act, airlines must follow specific guidelines in case an airplane crash results in death. These guidelines dictate that airlines are required to:

  • Establish family support services, generally grief counseling and support;
  • Assign individual caregivers to assist each family affected by loss;
  • Cooperate with the families of those who died in order to identify and return remains, as well as possessions; and
  • Establish a communication network with the affected families.

Generally speaking, passengers may not sue an airline for lost luggage. Because most airlines insure luggage up to a specified amount in case of damage or loss, passengers have no choice but to accept the airline’s compensation. It is important to note that unfortunately, pets are generally considered to be luggage, and as such have no added valuation.

Airline passengers may not sue for rescheduled or cancelled flights. When the passenger purchases a ticket, it is assumed that they are aware of the possibility that a flight may be cancelled or rescheduled. This is to their own detriment, meaning, they understand and accept that there is nothing they can do about it.

In general, passengers are not allowed to sue an airline for extended delays that leave them confined to the airplane for extended amounts of time. However, passengers may be able to sue if the delay caused them some type of injury.

When Will an Aviation Product Be Considered Defective? How Is Fault Determined In Such Cases?

In terms of general product liability, there are three legal theories under which a products liability case may be brought. These theories include negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty of fitness. There is no federal products liability law; as such, each state creates their own laws and regulations relevant to products liability.

In terms of aviation product liability specifically, the legal theory of strict product liability will determine if an aviation product is considered to be defective. Strict liability dictates that even if a product was safely designed, properly manufactured, and contained an appropriate warning, the manufacturer or retailer may be liable for injuries resulting from use of the product simply because the product caused those injuries.

The reason for this is that if a consumer was charged with proving who in the chain of production was liable for the product causing the injury, consumers would have almost no chance to win their case. Strict liability helps protect vulnerable consumers. As long as the victim can show that a defect in the product caused their injuries, most states will allow the victim to recover.

In roughly half of the states, manufacturers may be held strictly liable if the product is “unreasonably dangerous” for use by an ordinary consumer. A growing majority of states assert that a manufacturer is strictly liable if the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect. However, some states may use a risk-benefit test in order to determine whether the risk associated with the product design outweighs its benefits.

Comparative fault is a common issue associated with aviation liability lawsuits. It is especially important to determine the relative fault of the operator (the pilot), as well as the manufacturer of the machinery). Generally speaking, the jury determines the percentage of liability that can be assigned to each defendant. Should the jury find that both the operator and manufacturer are at fault, they will assign a percentage of fault to each. So, if it was only a pilot error, the pilot would be 100% at fault. If, however, the manufacturer was half to blame, the pilot would be 50% at fault and the manufacturer would be 50% at fault as well.

What Are the Possible Defenses to Aviation Product Liability?

Some of the most common defenses include, but may not be limited to:

  • FAA Certification: Certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is intended to manage risk through safety assurance measures. The defendant may be able to assert that they are FAA certified, and met all expectations. However, it is important to note that even FAA-compliant manufacturers may still be held liable under state product liability laws;
  • Assumption of Risk: It may be argued that the victim knowingly assumed risk by traveling by air. However, this defense will only work if the victim had a clear understanding of the risk of product, defect notwithstanding;
  • Adequate Warning: If the manufacturer can prove that they provided all necessary and adequate warning of the risks to all passengers, they may have a successful defense to liability; and/or
  • Modification or Alteration of the Product: Manufacturers, designers, etc. can only provide safety warnings and information for the intended use of their products. If the consumer somehow modifies or alters the product, and this is found to be the cause of the accident, the manufacturer may avoid being held liable.

Do I Need an Attorney for Issues Involving Aviation Product Liability?

If you were injured or experienced an accident while traveling by air, you should consult with an area liability lawyer. An experienced local attorney will be most knowledgeable in terms of how your state regulates such matters, and how those laws will affect your legal options moving forward. An attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

If you are an aircraft operator or manufacturer, an attorney can help you establish a strong legal defense, when available.