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Liability of Airlines

Transportation Law: Air Transportation: Personal Injury & Property Damage

An airline may be liable to its passengers for an aircraft accident based upon its status as a common carrier, its contract with the passengers, or an implied or express warranty regarding the safety of its aircraft. An airline may also be liable to its passengers for delays, for discrimination, or for wrongful expulsion. An airline may further be liable for its negligence or for the negligence of its employees.

An airline carrier is considered to be a common carrier if it holds itself out to the public as willing to carry all passengers for hire.  An airplane does not need to have a regular flight schedule to be considered a common carrier. It may only engage in charter flights. The airline only needs to agree to carry the general public for a uniform fare or tariff and not to refuse to carry passengers for hire.

When an airline issues a ticket to a passenger, it enters into a contract of carriage with the passenger. If the airline breaches the contract of carriage, the passenger may bring a breach of contract action against the airline. Although some cases involving aircraft accidents are based on contract principles, most cases are based on negligence or tort principles. Contract principles are generally reserved for cases involving lost or damaged luggage or cargo.

If an aircraft accident involves a defect or a malfunction in the aircraft, an action for breach of warranty may be brought against the airline. Although most breach of warranty actions are brought against aircraft manufacturers, a passenger may have problems bringing a breach of warranty action against a manufacturer because he or she does not have a contractual relationship with the manufacturer. Because the passenger has a contractual relationship with the airline, the passenger may claim that the airline breached its warranty regarding the safety of its aircraft.

Until 1983, airlines were not liable for delays or for the cancellation of a flight. After the enactment of the Airline Deregulation Act, an airline is currently liable to its passengers for delays or for the passengers’ failure to make a connecting flight under either negligence or breach of contract theories. This may be especially true if the airline overbooked a flight.

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 provides that no air carrier shall give or cause any unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person or subject the person to unjust discrimination or unreasonable prejudice. Under the Act, an airline may be liable to its passengers for discrimination or for wrongful expulsion. However, an airline is not liable for refusing to carry a passenger or for expelling a passenger who is considered to be dangerous or to be a safety threat.

An airline is liable for injury, death, or property loss that is the result of its negligence or the negligence of its employees. An airline is required to exercise the same duty of care to its passengers that a common carrier is required to exercise. Most courts hold an airline to the highest degree of care with regard to the safety of its passengers. In those courts, however, the airline is not considered to be an insurer of the passengers’ safety. It is only responsible for acts of negligence. Although airlines are generally only responsible for injuries sustained by passengers, under some circumstances they may be liable for injuries sustained by non-passengers, such as persons injured on the ground in an aircraft accident.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.