Liability is the responsibility that is borne by a party. It is a common term in the insurance business. Aviation product liability deals with the responsibility, mostly financial, that is borne by a party as a result of injury or damage resulting from the products that are used in the aviation industry. The most prominent aviation products are aircraft.
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The players in the Aviation Industry
The aviation industry is made up of a number of players. The most prominent ones include the federal government, the states, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the plane manufacturers and the passengers who use planes from time to time. Then there are people who service the aviation products, the pilots who fly the planes and the insurance companies who provide various forms of coverage to the aviation industry. The federal government comes in through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whereas the Internal Civil Aviation Organization is a body of the United Nations that oversees the aviation industry at the international level. It is not deeply involved in the air travel of individual countries. It is therefore not a major player in national aviation law.
The aviation industry is governed by aviation law. Like any other law, the aviation law has not shown any deficiency in the provision of legal answers to questions that have risen into the aviation industry. The law is dynamic and cases that have called for new legislation have been attended to. However, the most utilized form of legal guidance in resolving legal matters that are associated with the aviation industry are the courts. The courts in the states have from time to time considered the facts presented before them by the various parties involved in aviation cases or disputes, and made judgments based on the cases. This is true even in areas that have not been legally attended to by federal or state laws.
What are the most common cases in the aviation industry that lead to liability debates?
A number of cases can come up in the aviation industry that can lead to hot debates over who is supposed to assume responsibility for what part of the damage. The most common cases involve aircraft accidents whereby injured passengers ask for compensation. There is always confusion as to who is supposed to be served with process, appear in court and answer questions pertaining to liability. At some point, it was the personnel handling the finished product, and in some states it still is. In some others, the manufacturer of the product is the one who gets legal notification, appears in court and answers liability issues that are basically discussions on the willingness and level to which the company will compensate the injured passengers. Relatives of deceased passengers can also take legal action against personnel or the aircraft manufacturers. Also, transporters of goods whose luggage gets damaged in the process of transportation can sue the pilot of the plane, the owner of the plane or the manufacturer. All these are common cases that arise in the aviation industry that lead to liability debates (Kolczynski, 1997, p.1).
Types of Liability in the Aviation Industry
There are two common forms of liability in the aviation industry. These are liability due to negligence and strict liability.
Aviation Product Liability connected to Negligence
Under the provisions of negligence, cases involving defendants and plaintiffs require the plaintiff to establish clear instances of negligence in handling the aircraft or any other aviation related item, which led to the injury or damage that is the subject of the process or suit. Negligence as applied to aviation product liability can apply to pilots in the process of handling an aircraft as well as manufacturers in the process of producing the aircraft (Eichenberger, 1996, 71).
Strict Liability under Aviation Law
Strict liability as applied to aviation law does not present any unique differences with other forms of application. For example it is similar to the strict liability applications in general commercial production of such items as automobiles and body products. The three foundations of strict liability are generally acceptable as reference points when plaintiffs point out the reason for bringing up charges against a product manufacturer. These foundations are: design defect, manufacture defect and absence of warning to the consumer. In the following part, all these three foundations will be explored (Kolczynski, 1997, p.1).
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Absence of Warning
In the manufacture of certain commodities, the manufacturer try may to eliminate all possible sources of failure with little success. This can be due to a number of reasons such as the complicated nature of the commodity. It can also be due to the inability of the manufacturer to handle that commodity in the required manner at the time of production due to logistical or professional problems. In spite of these product deficiencies, the product may end up in the market and therefore in the hands of the consumers. In this case, the manufacturer is under obligation to inform the consumers of all the possible problems that may arise as a result of making use of this commodity. This warning gives consumers a number of choices which include the ability to be more cautious when using the commodity, carelessly using it at their own risk or not using it at all (Kolczynski, 1997, p.1).If for any reason the manufacturer fails to warn the consumer of possible danger as a result of making use of the product, then the manufacturer is liable under the law and the product as a defect due to absence of a warning to the user or consumers.
The aviation industry is associated with and full of complicated equipment whose effectiveness, though tested and affirmed is not always guaranteed. The manufacturers of all the parts that are made use of in the plane are required to warn both personnel and passengers of any possible danger.
Aviation Product Liability That Is Related To Design
In some cases, the designer of a product that is going to be used in the aviation industry can make a mistake in the design. Then the manufacturer moves forward and produces a whole line of products based on the design that is flawed resulting in a line of faulty commodities. This can happen in the plane design resulting in the production of a plane that is faulty. Normally, an objective examination is carried out with the consideration of safe alternatives being taken into account. Then the manufacturer is held responsible or liable for manufacturing faulty items based on a faulty design.
In some instances, the design can be perfect but in the manufacturing process, a mistake occurs leading to the production of a commodity that does not meet the industry standards. In the aviation industry, safety is a major concern, and when an aircraft does not meet industry standards, it is not in a position to guarantee the safety of the passengers and crew as well as other people or property that may be associated with the aircraft. This form of defect is also a ground for strict liability on the side of the manufacturer. All the three cases above can be justification for strict liability.
Establishment of product Liability in the Aviation Industry
With the complicated nature of aviation equipment, it is always difficult to establish the degree of liability of the parties that are subject to lawsuits for compensation. In some states, the manufacturers are considered deep pockets and therefore pushed into compensating all the passengers who get injured in aircraft accidents. The concept here is that the law as applied by the courts during the hearings is based on strict liability. But the ongoing debate is whether the personnel handling the aircraft at the time of accidents may be responsible for the accidents and therefore leading to unjustified claims on the manufacturer.
Under the above considerations, a number of changes have been made and implemented in some states such as California. Under these changed conditions, the law requires that the pilots share some of the liability. The manufacturer is made to pay a certain percentage of the amount that is concerned with material damages and physical injury of the passengers in the plane at the time of the accident or crash. This means the liability has now been spread or shared. The biggest challenge faced by this condition is the inability of the personnel or the pilots in meeting the compensation obligations of the passengers at the time of the crash (Hamilton, 2005, p.6).
Aviation Product Modification and Liability
Like any other product, the aircraft and other gadgets that are associated with the aviation industry undergo repair and /or modification. In the business of maintenance and operations, it is essential to ensure that engineers who supply the original equipment are the ones who supply the materials used for repairs and the records are kept accordingly. Due to the sensitivity of the aviation industry, it is recommended that no outside contractors are allowed to repair an aircraft or any other gadget that they have not sold to the company. The major reason for this is that in case the modified part leads to an accident and this is correctly established, the modifiers are responsible. In this case if a different company other than the manufacturer of the original item is used in modification, the new company takes the liability, and becomes the defendant in any compensation lawsuits. This can become very costly for small companies operating on a limited budget since they cannot stand litigation that will require them to compensate several passengers with huge financial settlements.
Role of the Federal Government in Aviation Product Liability
The federal government is involved in the aviation industry on two levels. The first level is the civilian level. Under the civilian level, the government has a number of laws that govern the aviation industry. These laws are not comprehensive and much of the decision making during legal processes involving victims of aircraft accidents, aircraft manufacturers, and the personnel are decided by the courts through a non biased examination of the facts surrounding each accident. Expert opinions are sought as a way of trying to establish the degree of dependability on the existing information. Under civilian aviation, the government has established the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), which is meant to ensure fairness in lawsuits involving manufacturers of aircrafts (Speciale,2006,p.17-19). The other way in which the government gets involved in aviation product liability is through the military. Companies that manufacture aircrafts are normally hired to produce or manufacture aircrafts for military use. This work is established according to specifications given by the government to the manufacturers since the aircrafts are for special use. Below is a detailed examination of these two areas of federal government involvement and the nature of liability (Kolczynski, 1997, p.1).
Military Aviation Product Liability
The aircrafts used by the military are produced by the manufacturers as per the specifications provided to them by the government. What then happens if a military plane crashes and army personnel die in the accident? Can the families of the deceased soldiers sue the manufacturer for liability? This is one of the cases that have clear cut regulations as far as liability is concerned. As a starting point in this case, the family members of deceased military members cannot sue the government if the officers die in service. But the companies that produce the aircraft can be held legally liable by the government if they do not produce the aircraft as per the instructions given to them. They can also be held responsible if they do not make clear warnings to the government regarding the dangers that may be encountered in the process of using the aircraft. These dangers are normally clear to the manufacturer and not the government, and this is why the manufacturer is required to inform the government of these dangers. If this is done, the manufacturing company is not liable for the product.
The General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA)
This is a major attempt by congress of the United States to legislate on the aviation industry. The General Aviation Revitalization Act was passed in 1994. It is meant to regulate general aviation meaning that it covers general aviation aircrafts; which the GARA defines as carriers of less than twenty passengers. This aircraft must have been licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration prior to the accident.
The GARA is described as a statute of repose, which means that it provides a period within which serving the manufacturing company with process as a result of the accident is acceptable. GARA sets this period at eighteen years for the type of aircraft specified in the statute which is basically, the general aviation aircraft. The aspect of passengers using aircrafts that have existed for more than eighteen years and coming up with lawsuits against manufacturers is what has been eliminated by this statute. GARA also covers mechanical parts of aircrafts that may be used for repairs or modifications. It is important to note that there are statutes of limitations that are applied in lawsuits associated with product liability in the aviation industry. The meaning of a statute of limitation is the deadline by which a manufacturing company should be served with process or the time that is acceptable for filing a lawsuit against the manufacturing company. It ranges from one year which is considered the norm or standard to three or four years in some states.
Who is recognized by GARA as a manufacturer?
The definition given to a manufacturer by GARA is broad. The interpretation is normally exercised by the courts around the United States as they determine cases involving manufacturers of aircrafts and other equipment that is utilized in the aviation industry. The most common meaning of manufacturer is the initial producer at the factory level where the different parts are processed and assembled to form the aircraft. The people who run sales offices for aircrafts also have the protection of GARA. All that is required is proof of linkage to the initial manufacturer of the aircraft and the person, company or agency is protected by GARA. Other entities that have been considered and therefore protected by GARA include people or companies that carry out the distribution of aircrafts and in some cases those that lease out aircrafts. The interpretation or definition of manufacturer as applied in GARA differs from state to state (Federal Aviation Administration, 2009, p.2-5).
Aviation product liability is the responsibility borne by various parties as a result of accidents such as crashes that involve the gadgets used within the aviation industry. The best examples of the equipment or products are planes. Liability can be due to negligence or strict liability that is founded on design defect, manufacture defect or absence of warning. Manufacturers are the most affected by lawsuits in the case of liability issues although there have been attempts to attach pilots. The major parties in aviation product liability cases include passengers of planes, pilots, and manufacturers. The congress has managed to legislate on aviation product liability. The law is called a statute of repose and it is known as the General Aviation Revitalization Act. It seeks to protect manufacturers from lawsuits running to unreasonably long periods of time after the sale of the aircrafts to the consumers. The period within which lawsuits are acceptable under GARA is eighteen years.
Eichenberger, J. (1996).General Aviation Law.2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.
Federal Aviation Administration. (2009). FAR/AIM 2010: Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR/AIM.New York: Aviation Supplies & Academics.
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Hamilton, S. (2005).Practical Aviation Law.4th ed.New York: Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc.
Kolczynski, J.P. (1997).Aviation Product Liabilty. Web.
Speciale, R. (2006).Fundamentals of Aviation Law, 1st Ed. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.