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U.S. Aviation Accidents Law Blog

Are government accident reports admissible as evidence at trial? P.2

In our previous post, we began looking at the potential usefulness of government accident reports for victims of airline crashes. These reports can sometimes be used to the benefit of crash victims, but there are certain issues that have to be taken into consideration with respect to the admissibility of these reports into evidence at trial.

The first issue, as we mentioned last time, is the factuality of the contents of the report. While factual findings and statements that follow from them are admissible, legal conclusions are not. This includes judicial or jury findings. The deference that would normally be given to such findings is one of the reasons for the admissibility of these statements. 

Are government accident reports admissible as evidence at trial?

For victims of aviation accidents, whether injured passengers or surviving family members, building a strong personal injury, wrongful death or product liability case requires solid evidence of liability, whether on the part of the airline, airplane manufacturers, suppliers, maintenance contractors or any other party that contributed to the crash.  

Building solid factual support for claims in an aviation accident case requires not only diligence in seeking out sources of reliable information about the accident, but also knowing how to deal with both favorable and unfavorable evidence in the context of aviation litigation. One area where this is particularly important is in dealing with government aviation accident reports. 

Black box recorders a useful source of evidence in commercial airline accidents

Building a solid aviation accident case, like any accident case, is dependent on the available evidence regarding the crash. Obtaining evidence typically involves examining the wreckage, interviewing any survivors who were involved in the crash, as well as eyewitnesses to the accident and others who have knowledge of the flight.

One important tool investigators have in examining airplane accidents is the black box recorder. These are similar to the black boxes installed in motor vehicles in that they record information about the airplane’s operations leading up to the accident. The details captured by these devices can help investigators determine how an accident occurred and can help in the determination of fault. 

Report highlights NTSB failure to conduct thorough general aviation accident investigations, P.2

In our last post, we began looking a recent USA Today report highlighting the some of the problems with the National Transportation Safety Board's approach to investigation of general aviation accidents. These problems include not devoting enough resources to these investigations, relying on manufacturers to identify problems with component parts, and heavy emphasis on the cause of the crash, as opposed to the cause of injury or death.

The latter issue is problematic because it means that the agency is ignoring problems with crashworthiness, or the ability of airplanes to protect aircraft occupants in the event of an accident. For example, in some minor accidents death or serious injury is caused not by the crash itself but by fires ignited as a result of the crash. Without thoroughly investigating the real causes of injury and death, manufacturers are left free to not address this issue, and others like it.

Report highlights NTSB failure to conduct thorough general aviation accident investigations, P.1

We’ve previously written on this blog about the general process the National Transportation Safety Board uses and the relationship between NTSB aircraft accident investigations and aircraft accident litigation. As we noted, NTSB probable cause findings and recommendations are not admissible in court, but the agency’s factual reports generally are admissible. It is important, therefore, that these factual reports are accurate.

For pilots of small aircraft, accuracy in factual reporting is particularly important, as there is a tendency for NTSB investigators to blame accidents on pilot error when the causes are not sufficiently understood. According to some who’ve looked into the process, NTSB investigators routinely overlook defective parts and dangerous designs as causes of small airplane crashes. 

Recent cases chip away at federal preemption in aviation-related product liability cases, P.2

Last time, we mentioned that recent cases have begun chipping away at federal preemption in the context of aviation-related product liability cases. These cases dealt with both the Federal Aviation Act and the General Aviation Revitalization Act, both of which have previously been held to preempt or trump state law when there is a conflict.

In short, recent decisions have established that the Federal Aviation Act doesn’t prevent states from exceeding its minimum standards and that standards set by the General Aviation Revitalization Act do not apply to state law liability claims. Because both of these cases served to limit liability for manufacturers, the chipping away at their precedence over state law claims means that plaintiffs may have an easier time resolving aircraft manufacturer liability cases in their favor in the future. 

Recent cases chip away at federal preemption in aviation-related product liability cases, P.1

For those who have been harmed in an aircraft accident caused by defects parts, working with an experienced attorney who has a strong handle on the law is critical to pursuing a successful case. Building a solid product liability case in the context of aviation accidents is not necessarily an easy matter, though. One reason for this is that the applicable legal standards need to be highlighted and accurately applied.

Legal standards surrounding product liability or aircraft are not uniform at the state and federal level, and it isn’t necessarily the case that federal law trumps state law when there is a conflict. At least not anymore, after recent cases which are chipping away at federal preemption in this area.  

A brief look at some principles of strict product liability in California

Aircraft manufacturing is a process about which most consumers have very little knowledge. As consumers, we rely on manufacturers and their suppliers to produce quality products that function properly and do not put consumers at unnecessary risk of harm. When aircraft manufacturing goes wrong and a consumer is harmed as a result, it is important to work with an experienced attorney to build the strongest possible case for both liability and damages.

The law regarding product liability varies by state. In California, plaintiffs are able to seek recover for aircraft manufacturing defects under several legal theories: negligence; breach of warranty; and strict liability. The difference between strict liability and negligence is that, with negligence claims, a plaintiff must prove failure to exercise reasonable care, whereas strict liability only requires showing that the defendant was responsible for causing harm to the plaintiff. Breach of warranty claims can involve either express or implied warranties. Depending on the circumstances of the case, one of these legal theories usually makes more sense than the others, though multiple theories can apply.

Airplane manufacturer receives regulatory clearance after manufacturing flaw discovered

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Association permitted Boeing Co. to resume flights of its new 737 Max on a limited basis after a manufacturing defect was discovered. Boeing has been delayed in beginning deliveries of the jetliner to airlines after a problem was discovered with the new model’s engine. The FAA had certified the engine design back in March and no issues had been detected after 2,000 hours of testing, but it subsequently became clear that the engine used in the new jetliner model had potential quality issues.

The specific issue with the engine was that the nickel-based turbine discs from one of Boeing’s suppliers had a forging flaw that made them susceptible to cracking. Discs from a second supplier were apparently not impacted by the forging flaw, but the Federal Aviation Association applied the quality review to all engines from the new line. Now, deliveries may resume as long as the planes have a spare engine which doesn’t include the potential defect. 

NTSB investigators among critics of Clint Eastwood film, Sully

New York readers remember that, in 2009, a US Airways airplane made an emergency landing in the Hudson River with 155 passengers aboard. Remarkably, the accident resulted in no deaths, and only minor injuries for a small group of passengers. One of the reasons the landing was so successful is that the pilot was so skillful in executing the emergency landing.

Following the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted a routine investigation in which it was determined that a flock of birds had gotten caught in both engines minutes after takeoff, causing them to lose power. 

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