Aviation Product Liability and Aviation Safety
It is the responsibility of an aircraft maker or aircraft part manufacturer to ensure that the airplane or aircraft part it makes is of adequate design and free of defects that may compromise aviation safety. The manufacturer must take responsibility for any of its defective products or inadequate design if they cause harm to others.
Our law firm has handled many product liability aviation disaster cases. The following example is also one in which we also changed law and improved aviation safety at the same time.
It involved a helicopter made by Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., which crashed in Los Angeles, California in 1998 when its tail rotor failed in flight as a result of metal fatigue in the tail rotor yoke. Two Los Angeles firefighters and an LAFD apparatus operator were taking part in a rescue operation of a child who had been in a car accident. They were on their way to Children’s Hospital when the helicopter crashed in Griffith Park, killing the child and the three firefighters.
The widows of the three firefighters hired our firm. After we filed their lawsuits, defense attorneys for the helicopter manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., tried to get our cases dismissed based on a federal law (The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 – GARA) that bars plaintiffs from suing aviation manufacturers for parts more than 18 years old. The trial judge dismissed our cases. We appealed. We won that appeal two years later and proceeded to prepare the cases for trial.
In summary, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles concluded that the law did not apply to Bell in this case. The judge wrote that there was evidence Bell withheld information from the Federal Aviation Administration “about five military aircraft accidents Bell knew were caused by failure of identical tail rotor yokes,” which caused the Griffith Park accident.
We argued that Bell Textron was required to report all parts failures, including those involving military aircraft. When Bell allegedly failed to do so, they were no longer protected by the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994.
The Act eliminates the liability to manufacturers when the aircraft has been in use for 18 years or more. The helicopter that crashed was 22 years old. However, there is a fraud exception when information is withheld from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).
Bell’s lawyers maintained that they were not required under the law to report military crashes.
After winning the appeal, Paul Hedlund (an aviation attorney for the families) said, “They have been hiding behind this military exemption for as long as I can remember. It was time somebody called them on it.”
Our wrongful-death suit alleged that Bell knew there were aviation safety problems with the tail rotor yoke and that it should have shortened the flight time on commercial aircraft, instead of extending it in 1989 from 4,000 to 5,000 hours. Bell shortened the flight time for the same part in military helicopters to 2,400 hours in 1992 in order to increase aviation safety.
“If they hadn’t lengthened it, all these people would be alive,” Mr. Hedlund said, noting that the crash occurred after the helicopter had logged 4,117 hours of flight time.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash was caused when a tail rotor separated from the aircraft in flight “due to a fatigue fracture in the yoke.”