Liability of Aircraft Lessors
Attorneys at Sterns & Walker help Bay Area aviation accident victims seek recovery against those responsible for the crash, including entities which have leased the aircraft yet may nevertheless be held liable in certain circumstances.
Sterns & Walker were instrumental in bringing about a landmark first of its kind major settlement against a U.S. lessor of aircraft to operators overseas, in a case brought in Illinois state court, which settled for $165 million. The consolidated lawsuits arose out of a 2000 plane crash in the Philippines which killed all 124 passengers and seven crew members aboard. Air Philippines, the carrier operating the flight, could not be named as a defendant in the U.S. lawsuits. Instead, only the lessors of the aircraft were pursued for liability. This was the largest settlement ever of an Asia-Pacific air accident.
A section of the Federal Aviation Act provides that a lessor is liable only when the aircraft is in the actual possession or “control” of the lessor, owner, or secured party. A lessor is defined as a person leasing a civil aircraft for at least 30 days.
The federal statute reflects the principle that issues of control and operation are key factors in determining general negligence. Under the law, owners can avoid liability if:
- The owner was not in control of the maintenance or operation of the aircraft at all relevant times leading up to the accident;
- The owner was not the employer of the operator or mechanic at fault;
- The owner had no knowledge of any dangerous condition or defect at the time control was transferred; or
- The owner did not entrust the aircraft to someone incompetent to fly it.
A lessor could also be liable for negligent maintenance. It is generally the owner’s responsibility to have a current airworthiness certificate, to maintain the aircraft and keep a record of that maintenance. However, in some lease agreements, the lessee has assumed responsibility for safe operation and maintenance.
Despite the Federal law, some states continue to hold lessors liable in some instances. Some states impose liability on owners by state law. Of those states, some limit the amount of liability that may be imposed, and some restrict liability only to non-passive owners.
The Air Philippines lawsuits were brought in Illinois, where the lessors sought dismissal based on the federal statute as well as forum non conveniens. These motions were denied. The court held once again that the federal law does not preempt state law claims against the lessors.
Similar to the Air Philippines case is Yemenia Air Flight IY626, which crashed off the coast of Comoros in June 2009. Of the 142 passengers and 11 crew members, one 12-year old girl survived the crash. This airplane was manufactured in 1990 and had been in service for the last 19 years. The plane was owned by a leasing company which leased it to several operators prior to its lease to Yemenia in 1999. This plane had a history of maintenance problems, and there is some question as to whether it was maintained properly. Sterns & Walker is looking into the liability of the lessors.
A knowledgeable trial attorney with experience handling aviation cases can identify the proper defendant which should be held responsible for the damages caused by an airplane disaster. For representation or advice regarding lessor liability in an airplane accident case, contact the Law Offices of Sterns & Walker today.