Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Up In the Air

Suppose an engine falls off of an in-flight airplane and hits and kills a person on the ground.  Now, suppose that same airplane crashes, killing all on board.  Is the owner of that airplane liable to both victims?  If so, does state or federal aviation law apply?

An interesting hypothetical that apparently has been answered by the Supreme Court of Florida.

In 2005, a leased airplane crashed after takeoff from a Lakeland, Florida airport, killing the pilot and his passenger.  The passenger's estate brought a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging that the airplane owner was vicariously liable for the pilot's negligence in the operation and inspection of the aircraft.  The lawsuit presented a conflict between Florida’s “dangerous instrumentality doctrine” and a federal statute that limits the liability of aircraft owners.  

Florida law applied the dangerous instrumentality doctrine to automobiles in 1920 and to airplanes in 1970.  See Orefice v. Albert, 237 So. 2d 142 (Fla. 1970).    In 1920, the Florida Supreme Court considered whether a corporation could be held responsible for the negligence of an operator who injured another while driving an automobile owned by the corporation. See Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 86 So. 629, 631 (Fla. 1920).  In its analysis, the Court expressed what is now known as the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, concluding:

An automobile being a dangerous machine, its owner should be responsible for the manner in which it is used; and his liability should extend to its use by any one with his consent.  He may not deliver it over to any one he pleases and not be responsible for the consequences.

At issue in the recent decision of Vreeland v. Ferrer, 2011 WL 2652187 (Fla. 2011), was whether it conflicted with a federal law, 49 U.S.C. § 44112, limiting the liability of aircraft lessors or owners for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage “on land or water.”

In Vreeland, the Supreme Court of Florida held that Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes vicarious liability upon owners and lessors of aircraft, even where the aircraft is not within their immediate control or possession at the time of the loss. To the extent that the doctrine applies to injuries, damages, or deaths that occur on the surface of the earth, the doctrine conflicts with, and is therefore preempted by the federal statute.  However, because the death of the passenger in Vreeland occurred while he was in a plane that crashed—not on the ground beneath the plane—the Lakeland wrongful death action was not preempted.

Vreeland is significant for the general aviation community as it invites technical distinctions and arguments about the precise location of personal injury, death, or property loss or damage arising from airplane accidents without any apparent corresponding policy reason.  In dissent, Justice Polston remarked that the decision “defies reality” because "[e]ven though [the passenger] was in the aircraft when it hit land, his death occurred 'on land,' not in the aircraft prior to his contact with land.  The majority's view is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the statute."

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