Liability of Pilots

Transportation Law: Air Transportation: Personal Injury & Property Damage

In almost every aircraft accident, whether the accident involves a commercial aircraft or a private aircraft, one of the first considerations is whether the pilot’s negligence was the cause of the accident. A pilot who is in command of an aircraft is the person who is responsible for the operation of the aircraft while it is in flight. The pilot is also responsible for the safety of the aircraft.

Only a pilot is responsible for making decisions regarding the operation and safety of an aircraft. Air traffic controllers do not make decisions for the pilot. Air traffic controllers cannot decide whether the pilot should land an aircraft during bad weather. Only the pilot can make that decision. However, the pilot makes those types of decisions based upon information that he or she may receive from the air traffic controllers.

In accordance with federal regulations, a pilot has a duty to retain power or control over the operation of an aircraft during flight. The pilot also has a common law duty to exercise ordinary care in the handling of the aircraft. The pilot is responsible for the safety of his or her passengers. If a pilot violates federal regulations during a flight, such violation may be used to show negligence on the part of the pilot.

One problem that often arises in determining negligence on the part of a pilot for an aircraft accident is when the accident was caused by hazardous weather conditions. The pilot may claim that he or she was not given enough information by the air traffic controllers with regard to the weather conditions. However, some courts have held that, once the pilot has been informed of hazardous weather conditions by the air traffic controllers, the pilot has the responsibility to anticipate the conditions and to take precautions in order to avoid an accident. In those courts, the pilot’s failure to anticipate the conditions or to take the precautions will constitute negligence on the part of the pilot.

In addition to a pilot’s duty to his or her passengers, the pilot owes a duty to persons and property on the ground. If a pilot operates an aircraft in such a manner as to endanger the life or property of persons on the ground, the pilot may be liable for negligence or trespass. If a pilot fails to observe federal laws or regulations in the operation of the aircraft, the pilot may be liable for negligence or trespass with regard to persons or property on the ground.

The regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibit the dropping of any object from an aircraft in flight, which dropping would create a hazard to persons or property on the ground. The FAA’s regulations also require pilots to maintain minimum safe altitudes, such as 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in congested areas and 500 feet above the surface over water or over less congested areas. The FAA’s regulations also require that no aircraft be operated below an altitude that would allow for an emergency landing without damage to persons or property on the ground in the event of an emergency. In the event a pilot violates these regulations, the pilot will be liable for negligence.

A pilot may be liable under common law theories of negligence and trespass if the pilot’s operation of an aircraft results in property damage on the ground. If a pilot flies his or her aircraft so low that livestock are frightened and then become injured, the pilot may be liable for the damage to the livestock. A pilot may also be liable for damage that results from crop dusting or spraying operations. In the case of crop dusting or spraying operations, the pilot may be liable, even if the pilot flew his or her aircraft at a higher altitude than the minimum standards under the FAA’s regulations.