Aviation litigation may involve commercial or private airline accidents. When a flight crosses state lines or when an aircraft contains passengers from several different states, an accident will often result in large multi-party lawsuits and litigation in several states or in several federal district courts. When several states are involved, it must be determined whether the state courts or the federal courts are entitled to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over the accident and which state’s laws will apply to the accident.
Although an accident that occurs within a state will generally entitle a court within the state to have subject-matter jurisdiction over the accident, the court must also have personal jurisdiction over the parties who are involved in the litigation. Each defendant must have sufficient minimum contacts with the state in order to be sued in the state court. Therefore, aviation litigation is often brought in federal courts based on the diversity of citizenship of the parties.
Although the general law of torts applies to airline accidents, federal law may be applied because the federal government is responsible for regulating aviation safety standards. Such federal laws include the Federal Aviation Act and the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Death on the High Seas Act or the Jones Act may apply if the accident occurred at sea or in navigable waters. The Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, the Warsaw Convention, or the Hague Convention may apply if the accident involved a foreign airline or foreign passengers.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the agency of the federal government that is responsible for prescribing minimum safety standards for the design and construction of aircraft and their components. The FAA is involved in the inspection of aircraft. The FAA is responsible for certifying pilots, crew members, and mechanics. The FAA promulgates air traffic rules and regulations regarding the flight of aircraft and the protection of persons and property on the ground. The FAA also licenses air traffic controllers.
State law may be considered to be inapplicable to an airline accident because of the Federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (ADA). The ADA prohibits a state from enforcing its laws or regulations with regard to the price, route, or service of an air carrier. Although the ADA will generally preclude claims against air carriers under state consumer protection laws, the ADA does not preclude state negligence actions against air carriers for personal injuries.
Because airline accidents often result in serious personal injury and death, a state’s wrongful death and survival laws may apply to an accident. A wrongful death action may be brought by a decedent’s surviving spouse, children, or parents. A survival action may be brought by a decedent’s heirs, legal representatives, or estate. Damages in a wrongful death action may include monetary losses, mental anguish, and loss of companionship. Damages in a survival action may include medical and hospital expenses, funeral expenses, and the pain and suffering of the decedent.
A state’s tort and negligence laws may also apply to an airline accident. Negligence principles are based on a breach of a duty, which breach was the proximate cause of an accident. The airline, the pilot, or the people who are responsible for maintaining and repairing the aircraft may be sued for negligence. If aircraft malfunction was the cause of the accident, the manufacturer of the aircraft may also be sued for negligence. Airport owners and air traffic controllers may further be sued for negligence.