Airliner Accidents

Airliner accidents can present a host of difficult technical and legal issues. The Ashfords Aviation Team has class leading specialist experience in assisting and representing multinational groups of victims and families who have lost loved ones in airliner disasters around the world.

Although modern airliners use state of the art technology to achieve dramatic advancements in their safety, accidents do continue to occur due to a variety of issues with the aircraft systems/ components as well as or in combination with pilot error and other operational issues. Furthermore, there continues to be major losses due to terrorist attacks and pilot suicide.

When there is a major disaster involving the loss of an airliner, inevitably this will cause death or serious injury to potentially hundreds of people. In addition, on international flights, the crash site may be in a country that is foreign to some or many of the passengers or in a very remote location. Furthermore, even with current GPS and communications technology, there can be airliner crashes where the wreckage cannot be located (e.g. Malaysian Airlines MH370) or where the airliner crashes into an ocean and the wreckage and black boxes are not recovered for several years (e.g. Air France Flight 447).

Following an airliner tragedy, the victims and families face an extremely traumatic situation but can often find that there is very little information on what caused the crash and a comprehensive Final Accident Report identifying the full chain of events may take years to be  published. This can be due to the location of the accident, as mentioned above, making it difficult for the accident investigators to recover the wreckage and flight data recorders or the country responsible for the accident investigation may take an excessively long time to conclude the investigation and publish an accident report. Click here to read an example of this in the Dana Air case study.

This lack of information on the reasons for the accident is very frustrating for the families and victims and can add delay to crucial flight safety lessons being learned. Furthermore, a lack of information on the chain of events that caused the accident can have serious implications for the complex legal cases, where the law often requires cases to be filed with a court within two years from the date of the accident. Click here to read more about Aviation Law and Litigation.

The Ashfords Aviation Law Team is class leading in these circumstances as it has unique in-house professional aviation and legal expertise. Jim Morris, who heads the Aviation Team, is a former Royal Air Force pilot who was professionally qualified on the Boeing AWACS, a 4 engine Boeing 707 airliner that is converted to a military airborne radar platform. Having flown this aircraft around the world, and to the edge of its capabilities (formation flying, air to air re-fuelling, air show displays), Jim is in the unique position as an aviation lawyer to analyse how the accident airliner would be handling and reacting during the chain of events that lead to the loss of control of the aircraft. At a very early stage, this enables the Aviation Team to independently investigate the causes of the air accident. This not only assists the families and victims to understand what happened and who should be held to account, but it also highlights flight safety issues so that pressure can be applied to improve flight safety, for example by lobbying for an unsafe airline to be put on the EU blacklist and banned from overflying EU countries. Click here to read an example of this in the Sita Air case study.

Furthermore, where necessary the team are able to construct detailed flight simulator reconstruction scenarios, to be tested and analysed in certified flight simulator sessions. Examples of case where Jim has used flight simulator reconstructions are:

  • Air France Airbus A330.
  • Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800.
  • Ethiopian Airline Boeing 737-800.
  • Air Blue Airbus A321. 

The complexity of airliner accidents combined with the length of the investigation or lack of information adds to what is already a complex legal case. As a large number of airliner accidents occur during international flights there are many issues to consider, including the causes of action available, the countries available to litigate the case, the laws in each country on liability and losses that can be recovered and which country the claim should be filed. 

The law applicable to the airline operator is governed by international conventions (Montreal and Warsaw) for international flights. For short haul domestic flights the international conventions will normally not apply (unless the flight is part of successive international carriage or by an EU carrier) so a detailed understanding of the domestic law of the country where the accident occurred, the airline’s terms and conditions of carriage and other agreements that the airline has in relation to passenger compensation is required.

In addition to a case against the airline, there may be other parallel causes of action against entities such as the manufacturer of the aircraft, the manufacturer of a component within the aircraft or another party such as an air traffic control company or a maintenance provider.

Having the expertise to identify and pursue these other causes of action is extremely important as they can transform a case in terms of its prospects and value. For instance, if there is a credible cause of action that can be brought in the US against a US entity (such as a product liability action), the ability to enhance the value of the losses recovered can be increased by many multiples, when compared to many other jurisdictions around the world. Click here to read an example of this in the Pamir case study. This not only provides the best legal result for the families and victims, it also makes those responsible and their insurers suffer the highest financial punishment, which is an incentive to prevent similar litigation costs in the future by taking measures to prevent similar accidents in the future.

For further information on the law, please see the section on Aviation Law and Litigation.

In addition to the catastrophic airliner crashes, there can be serious accidents during takeoff, landing and in-flight where control of the aircraft is not lost but the incident still causes deaths and injuries. Examples include severe turbulence during flight, fire, cabin smoke and fumes, depressurization, inappropriate handling of passenger medical emergencies and accidents in the cabin or during embarkation/ disembarkation. The same laws apply to these accidents as to the catastrophic crashes.  

The Ashfords Aviation Team has specialist experience and ability in litigating against airline operators and identifying and pursuing additional causes of actions in jurisdictions around the world, with particular experience in aviation product liability and other negligence actions in the US.

Please click here to see examples of the Team's extensive experience in airliner accidents.