Let’s discuss liability in the Dynamic Airways Boeing 767 engine fire that occurred at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport on October 29, 2015. The plane, a Boeing 767 bound for Caracas, Venezuela, had a serious engine fire while taxiing for departure on Taxiway B. According to the Air Traffic Control (“ATC”) feed, everything happened relatively quickly. The aircraft behind the Dynamic 767 informed ATC that the “live” engine was leaking what appeared to be fuel. Moments later, that engine and a large portion of the port side of the aircraft were engulfed in flames. Fortunately, Broward County Fire Department responded to the scene and all passengers were able to evacuate within six minutes via the aircraft’s emergency exit slides. What is unfortunate, however, is that more than 20 people were injured, landing at least one passenger in the ICU with serious burns and one child injured. Furthermore, the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport was closed for an indefinite period while emergency teams and airport administration contained the situation.
Time and time again, we are told that the most dangerous part of flying is “the drive to the airport.” Today, for some unfortunate souls onboard the Dynamic 767 bound for Caracas, that saying was a colossal farce. So who is to blame? Who do we hold responsible for the fact that some Dynamic passengers took a ride in an ambulance rather than an airworthy Boeing 767? Can those individuals have any redress for the injuries that they have sustained?
As of right now, it is too soon to tell who is at fault. Was it the airline, the pilots, the mechanics, ground crew, aircraft/engine manufacturers, and/or some unknown entity? It’s hard to say this early into the investigation. However, there is at least one early indications that seemingly spells disaster for both Dynamic Airways’ and the engine manufactures…the fuel leak. The two primary questions about the fuel leak are: what caused the leak and did the leak have anything to do with the fire? From there, an apportionment of blame can begin to sort itself out.
Well, what does “the blame game” have to do with potential torts in Dynamic Airways’ engine fire? Think of it this way. If the fire was caused by some sort of design defect in the engine, there may be a potential claim for strict product liability against the engine’s manufacturer. This theory of damage recovery allows the plaintiff to avoid showing negligence on the part of the manufacturer. Instead, the mere fact that the product was defective and caused injury is sufficient to allow the plaintiff to sue. Depending on the law in your state, for the most part, a strict liability claim will have four elements: 1) the defendant must be a merchant; 2) the product is defective at the time it is sold by the defendant; 3) the product is unreasonably dangerous; 4) the plaintiff suffers personal injury or property damage caused by the defective property. In the scenario where the engine was improperly designed, those injured on the Dynamic flight could potentially have a case using the strict liability theory.
Think of another scenario where the pilots of the Dynamic Airways’ 767 knew of the fuel leak and did nothing to correct or investigate the issue. In this scenario, you will likely have to also assume that the leak had something to do with the fire. This situation speaks to the tort theory of negligence. Negligence is an unintentional tort involving carelessness that causes harm. Generally, the tort of negligence requires the plaintiff to meet 4 burdens: 1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; 2) the defendant breached that duty of care; 3) the defendant’s breach is the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury; and 4) the plaintiff suffers injury that is protected under the law. In the scenario of pilot negligence, you could see where those individuals injured on the flight could say that the pilot owed a duty and that the pilot breached that duty by not seeing to it that the leak was corrected, thus causing their injury. You could also see that in the world where a mechanic incorrectly/failed to fix/diagnose/maintain the engine, the injured parties could work up a case for negligence.
Nonetheless, those with significant injuries do not want to sue pilots and mechanics for their catastrophic injury. Why? Simply put, these aren’t the people with the money. Rather, the pilots and the mechanics would rather need to worry about a FAA Enforcement Action being brought against them in that sort of situation; however, that is not to say that they could not also be sued for negligence.
As the investigation continues, it will be possible to give more poignant analysis on the situation. None of the above is to be considered legal advice, rather brief legal musings on the details as reported. There are a lot of moving parts to be considered in a case such as this (like will the Montreal Convention come in to play, etc)…much of which are too lengthy to recite in a blog article. If you have questions about the Dynamic Airways Boeing 767 engine fire, call an aviation attorney at The Ison Law Firm…call us at 863-712-9472 or e-mail to Anthony@ThePilotLawyer.com.