Aviation Law and Litigation

Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell defends commercial airlines and aviation component manufacturers in general commercial litigation, as well as in product liability lawsuits stemming from aviation accidents.

Commercial airline cases frequently require the application of complex international law, including the Warsaw Convention, Montreal Convention and IATA Agreements. Our work with commercial airlines includes handling claims through trial. The types of cases handled on behalf of the commercial carriers includes cases:

  • Where injuries were allegedly sustained at the airport
  • Injuries are allegedly sustained while onboard aircraft
  • Injuries are allegedly sustained as a result of in-flight conditions or which are allegedly caused by pilot error  
  • Injuries are allegedly sustained during severe in-flight turbulence
  • Allegations of battery
  • False imprisonment and/or inappropriate actions on behalf of the flight crewAircraft 
  • Maintenance facilities/fixed base operations in claims involving allegations of pilot error and negligent maintenance of aircraft

Aviation Accidents

Aviation accident cases often include allegations of catastrophic pilot error, mechanical failure, and aircraft and component design flaws. Defending aviation accident cases involves complex and specialized technical investigations and forensic testing. We have experience working with and deposing expert witnesses in the fields of aeronautical accident reconstruction, meteorology, piloting, metallurgy, flight tracking, and aeronautical engineering.

Experience with aviation crash/accident cases includes:

  • Currently handling in excess of 100 passenger lawsuits resulting from a Boeing 737 crash in the Caribbean
  • Defended an aircraft engine manufacturer in a product liability case brought by the survivors of over a dozen people who died when their plane crashed after takeoff in the Caribbean.
  • Crash of a Bell 407 helicopter where the alleged cause of the crash was a failure of the FADEC system
  • Crash of a Bell 407 helicopter where it was alleged that negligent maintenance resulted in the tail rotor blade severing the tail boom
  • Accident where the main rotor came into contact with the tail boom of an MD600N helicopter; a crash of a Robinson R-22 helicopter in the middle of an intersection in South Florida
  • Crash of a Nomad N24 aircraft in Haiti
  • Crash involving a Cessna 310
  • Also involved in the representation of a flight school in an action arising out of a mid-air collision between a Piper Cherokee and a twin engine Piper Aztec
  • Part of team of architects of the complex legal proceedings surrounding the crash of ValuJet flight 592 on May 11, 1996 in which there were over 100 fatalities and the crash, and of Comair flight 3272 on January 9, 1997 in which 26 passengers perished.

Warsaw and Montreal Conventions

RKC has been on the leading edge of the creation of case law discussing their application. The 22-page opinion in Ugaz v. American Airlines, 576 F. Supp. 2d 1354 (S.D. Fla. 2008), not only expanded the application of the Montreal Convention to non-carriers, such as Miami-Dade County d/b/a Miami International Airport, but it also narrowly construed the “accident” requirement of Article 17.

The District Court first determined that the airport owner, Miami-Dade County, which RKC client American Airlines is frequently required to defend and indemnify, could not be liable to the Plaintiff because the action fell within the scope of the Convention. Because the Convention only regulates carriers, the Court held the Plaintiff could not maintain an action against the non-carrier county. With regard to American Airlines, RKC attorneys successfully argued that the subject incident involving an injury on a nonoperational escalator was not an unusual or unexpected event and was not, therefore, an “accident” under the Montreal Convention. The Court agreed and granted summary judgment in its entirety on behalf or RKC’s client.

In another published opinion, the same court expanded the reach of the Montreal Convention’s preemptive scope in Nobre v. American Airlines, 2009 WL 5125976 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 21, 2009). This case involved federal and state claims for discrimination, assault, and battery. Arguing the Montreal Convention applies to all claims taking place on board the aircraft or during the process of disembarkation, Rumberger attorneys convinced the Court to preempt the Plaintiffs’ federal and state claims and dismiss them with prejudice for lack of a bodily injury. Recognizing that the Plaintiffs’ discrimination claims were barred under the Convention solely because the flight was international rather than domestic, the Court nonetheless found preemption and dismissed the claims, agreeing with RKC that it is not the role of the courts to rewrite the terms of an international treaty. This issue was a matter of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit.

Additional Experience with Warsaw and Montreal Conventions:

  • Prevailed on a motion to dismiss with prejudice in a case based on the Montreal Convention. The Plaintiff pled a claim for general negligence under Florida law more than three years after the accident. We removed the case to federal court and immediately moved to dismiss, arguing that the Montreal Convention preempted the Plaintiff’s claims and barred his suit filed more than two years after the subject incident.
  • Even prior to the ratification of the Montreal Convention, we were successful in creating new law or modifying existing law under the Warsaw Convention. In Medina v. American Airlines, 2006 WL 3663692 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 14, 2006), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida expanded the “necessary measures” defense for air carriers under the Warsaw Convention when it found American Airlines was not liable in a severe coffee scalding case. After a bench trial and the submission of trial briefs, the District Court issued a published opinion rejecting the Plaintiff’s argument that “necessary measures” meant the carrier must take every possible precaution that may have prevented the loss. Instead, the District Court agreed with American Airlines and expanded the defense by defining “necessary measures” as “reasonable measures in relation to the risk.” This was a first in the Eleventh Circuit. This case law is still used today in claims brought under the tenets of the IATA agreements which preceded the Montreal Convention.
  • In an earlier decision arising from a wrongful death lawsuit under the Warsaw Convention, the Plaintiff alleged the carrier engaged in negligent and willful misconduct when the captain failed to divert the aircraft to the nearest airport during a medical emergency, resulting in the death of a passenger. The RKC team successfully narrowed the definition of an “accident” under the Warsaw Convention by arguing that the failure to divert an aircraft during a medical emergency does not constitute an “accident” thereby barring the Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim. Although the Plaintiff attempted to circumvent this argument by stating that her claims were pled under the “willful misconduct” provision of Article 25, the Court determined that a party may not circumvent the “accident” requirement of Article 17 when attempting to plead a claim for “willful misconduct” and granted summary judgment on all grounds.
  • Obtained a defense verdict under the parameters of the Warsaw Convention, in which we represented a commercial airline where the pilot allegedly flew into an area of clear air turbulence causing severe back injuries to the Plaintiff – a professional golf player.
  • Obtained a defense verdict in a case in which the Plaintiff claimed scalding coffee caused him severe first, second, and third degree burn injuries on his genitals. This trial resulted in a published opinion creating new law in our circuit on the Warsaw Convention.

Damages-Based Cases

We also represent clients in damages-based suits. Our experience and knowledge in personal injury litigation has enabled us to expose claims of inflated or fraudulent damages in a considerable number of cases.

  • Obtained defense verdict in a damages-based lawsuit. During closing argument, the Plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury to return a $12 million verdict to compensate the Plaintiff for injuries allegedly sustained to her cervical and lumbar spine, her inability to work as a result of the wheelchair accident, and her pain and suffering. The jury returned a defense verdict in less than two hours. Despite enormous medical bills and several years of palliative care, the jury felt that the numerous inconsistencies in the Plaintiff’s medical histories and the clear medical evidence of no demonstrative injury outweighed the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
  • Represented a commercial airline in which the jury returned a verdict holding RKC’s client responsible for the minor property damage to the Plaintiff’s wheelchair, but finding them wholly relieved of any responsibility for the Plaintiff’s alleged injuries.  The Plaintiff was a quadriplegic who claimed injury as a result of improper handling during multiple transfers while a passenger. Despite the Court allowing the issue of punitive damages to go to the jury, RKC successfully convinced them that the airline’s conduct did not warrant the imposition of punitive damages. In addition to persuasive liability testimony that the care rendered to the Plaintiff by our employees was exemplary, evidence involved impeachment of the Plaintiff and his physicians on the origin of his medical complaints. The Plaintiff’s attorney asked the jury to return a verdict in excess of seven figures.
  • Jury returned a verdict in favor of RKC’s client in a negligence action brought by a postal worker allegedly struck by one of the airline’s vehicles. The postal worker claimed he sustained cervical disc herniations requiring epidural injections, disc nucleoplasy, and a surgical fusion. He demanded more than $650,000 in damages but came away with nothing after RKC disproved the soft tissue injuries alleged.
  • Achieved a favorable verdict in an action involving the alleged improper handling of a disabled passenger resulting in claimed soft tissue and other injuries. At trial, the passenger demanded an award far in excess of $1 million.  However, the jury returned a verdict for less than $3,000 as a result of RKC’s discovery and exposure of the passenger’s exaggerated and nonexistent injuries. The minimal award was also further reduced based on the evidence that RKC presented proving the passenger was comparatively negligent.
  • Obtained a verdict in favor of our client by convincingly bringing the Plaintiff’s extensive pre-existing injuries and multiple prior accidents to the jury’s attention. The Plaintiff asked the jury to return a verdict in the amount of $12 million to compensate her for personal injuries including several herniated discs in her cervical and lumbar spine as well as for lost wages resulting from a wheelchair accident in Japan. During trial, the RKC defense team put forth evidence of the Plaintiff’s five prior motor vehicle accidents, prior lawsuits in which she sought damages for the exact same injuries as well as audio clips of the Plaintiff during a contemporaneous worker’s compensation proceeding in which she blamed her injuries on an unrelated worker’s compensation incident. Our investigation, discovery, and presentation of this evidence proved crucial to the favorable outcome obtained. The jury returned a defense verdict in less than two hours.
  • A passenger filed a lawsuit under the Warsaw Convention claiming the airline subjected her to criminal arrest, prosecution, and detainment by improperly labeling baggage containing 65 pounds of cocaine as belonging to her. We moved for summary judgment on grounds that this was neither an “accident” under the terms of the Warsaw Convention nor did the passenger suffer any “bodily injury,” thus precluding her claims. The passenger initially demanded an amount in excess of $10 million, but later settled for the Warsaw limits after we filed our summary judgment motion.
  • The Plaintiff demanded an exorbitant amount from the airline for injuries, allegedly sustained when he was handcuffed and duct taped to his seat after being accused of disrupting his international flight. Our investigation revealed that the passenger suffered no permanent physical injuries as a result of being handcuffed and all he could prove was some minor cuts and bruising. We successfully convinced the passenger that the Warsaw Convention precluded him from recovering any of his claimed emotional injuries because they did not stem directly from the minor physical injuries he allegedly suffered. As a result, the passenger settled his claims against American Airlines for a minimal amount.
  • Our extensive litigation experience also includes thorough investigation and discovery in cases in which the Plaintiffs claimed inflated damages. We have handled cases in which we have uncovered direct evidence of fraudulent claims, severely understated post-accident income,  prior lawsuits dismissed for fraud and inconsistencies in medical records and evidence of drug abuse.

Educating Our Clients

RKC attorneys have lectured regularly on the topics of Warsaw and Montreal Conventions, particularly to the risk departments of our airline clients. Topics included “Litigating Claims Under the Warsaw Convention;” “Montreal Convention: Changes with the Replacement of the Warsaw Convention;” as well as “E-Discovery: New Discovery Requirements in the Technology Era.” 

 
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