There are hundreds of airplane accidents across the U.S. every year. Many, according to the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), are caused by improper maintenance or failure to follow clear repair procedures or service bulletins. When aircraft maintenance operations fail in their duty to keep an airplane airworthy, they may be guilty of negligence and be liable for damages to injured victims or the survivors of wrongful deaths after an accident.
When repair errors lead to aviation accidents, who is ultimately held responsible for consequences? We look at the role of the regulators and lawmakers. We also look at the parallels between aircraft and vehicle accidents caused by faulty maintenance.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has oversight and establishes repair and maintenance regulations for commercial airliners. Yet some airlines have placed profits over safety. A growing number of major U.S. commercial air carriers and private aviation service companies continue to outsource critical maintenance tasks to third-party service providers – many of them “offshore” – to lower maintenance costs. The FAA consistently attempts to oversee the safety of these outsourced and offshore vendors when aircraft are “cycled back” to the U.S., but with varying degrees of success. There have been rumblings in Congress calling for more stringent regulations on this maintenance practice.
General aviation aircraft repair is less regulated and is subject only to annual inspections. As with repair services on commercial airlines, general aviation service firms also focus on correcting only what is currently wrong, often ignoring underlying problems that may develop later.
Obligations of Aircraft Maintenance
Thousands of service and maintenance tasks are assigned to personnel in both the commercial and general aviation sectors. When cost-cutting measures or negligent repair services compromise safety, tragic accidents can occur. Passengers and pilots are right to expect that their aircraft has been maintained and repaired properly. The company that performs these tasks owes them this “high legal duty of professional care." A few of the many aircraft maintenance responsibilities include:
- Full annual inspections
- Airframe maintenance (and refurbishment when required, or when ordered by the FAA)
- Repair or replacement of obsolete components
- Inspect, calibrate, repair, or replace electronic components, sensors, and instruments
- Inspect and repair leaking fuel tanks and hydraulic systems.
There are many maintenance issues that can lead to liability claims if they cause an accident. Some documented events over the years have involved the use of incorrect replacement parts in private planes that directly caused an accident. Others include improper installation of replacement parts in general aviation aircraft which then fail in-flight.
Different aviation laws govern commercial ("common carrier”) and general (“private carrier”) aircraft. If negligent maintenance is the cause of an accident, general aviation law applies a somewhat lower standard of legal duty than those expected of common carrier (airline and military) aircraft.
Negligent Supervision of Employees
When an employer does not take steps to ensure its employees obey the policies of the company or the FAA, a case for negligent supervision may exist. Sometimes, company supervisors may be responsible not only for their own wrongful behavior but for the negligent behavior of their employees.
Common examples of negligent supervision over aircraft repair and maintenance personnel include:
- Failing to provide training and guidance when equipping employees with dangerous tools or chemicals
- Allowing intoxicated employees to operate machinery
- Inadequate supervision of employees performing vital tasks, later determined to be the cause of an aircraft accident. This may include fueling errors, mistakes in routine maintenance, errors in calibration of monitoring sensors or devices, and improper replacement of faulty or inoperative parts.
Aviation accidents are life-altering tragedies. An experienced aviation attorney should be immediately retained in order to keep close watch on what could be a prolonged investigation to determine the cause of the accident.
As one of South Florida's most respected and oldest law firms, Stabinski & Funt, P.A., has helped many clients to understand their legal rights and responsibilities and to receive financial compensation for their loss. We work on a contingency basis, which means that there is no fee or cost to you if there is no recovery. To learn more about how we can help you after an aviation accident, contact us for a free consultation by calling (305) 964-8644, or fill out a case evaluation form.