LOS ANGELES — Yemenia Airways Flight 626, traveling from Sana’a, Yemen, crashed on June 30 near the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, killing 153 passengers and crew. One girl survived. One month earlier, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while en route from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris. Each of the 228 people on board was killed.
Both crashes involved stormy weather and aircraft manufactured by Airbus, but their causes remain unclear as searches for the planes’ black boxes continue.
In the Air France crash, preliminary reports have suggested that there were problems with the aircraft’s speed sensors. The European Union had recently banned the Yemenia Airways jet from operating within its airspace due to safety concerns.
Mike Danko of the Danko Law Firm in San Mateo, Calif., is a pilot and aviation lawyer who writes a blog, www.aviationlawmonitor.com , and has been following the recent Airbus crash investigations. Danko, who has represented passengers and their families in air crashes for the past decade, told The National Law Journal that families of the victims of the Yemenia Airways crash have a good chance of bringing personal injury suits in the United States, where they could obtain more damages than if they sued overseas.
NLJ: Generally speaking, how could the families of the victims of these recent crashes obtain damages in personal injury suits?
MD: Most important is whether the particular passenger was on a domestic flight or if his trip included an international destination. If one passenger sitting in one seat has gone and crossed an international border, or started in a different country, then international treaties apply. If the treaties apply, the families are entitled to compensation without proving any negligence. All they have to show is there was an accident. For example, with regard to the Air France 447 flight, we don’t know what happened certainly, but we know it’s an accident. Every family is automatically going to be entitled to compensation from Air France.
NLJ: What other parties could end up as defendants and held liable in these crashes?
MD: The passengers could say, “I’m not satisfied with that.” They could say, “I’m going to sue both the airline and the aircraft manufacturer” under general products liability law under whatever country they can get jurisdiction. In Air France 447, they could sue Airbus perhaps in France. But perhaps not satisfied with the French way of compensating the victims, say they wanted to come to the U.S. They could not sue Airbus in the U.S. However, if they found [that] the crash was caused by a component parts manufacturer, and the manufacturer is in the U.S., they could sue the component parts manufacturer in the U.S. In the Air France crash, there are a lot of questions about the computer system, the weather radar system and the speed sensors.
NLJ: Why sue in the United States?
MD: Most other countries have a different system, and those different systems don’t, for example, frequently compensate the families very well for pain and suffering. They may compensate the families for a loved one’s earnings, but not for pain and suffering or loss of someone’s companionship. Most victims of foreign air disasters, if they can get a lawsuit heard in the U.S., are more likely to be fully compensated for their loss.
NLJ: How much more are we talking about?
MD: The compensation you’re entitled to depends upon the country in which you file your suit. In the U.S., $3.5 million per passenger is historically a rough average. If you go to Indonesia, if that’s where you have to sue, you could expect $80,000 passenger.
NLJ: Given what we know so far, which of these crashes is most likely to allow families of the victims to sue in the United States?
MD: The best example would be the Yemenia Airways flight. In that case, of course, the passengers can sue the airline. But it’s unlikely they’d be able to sue the airline in the U.S. It’s unlikely they’d be able to sue Airbus for defect in the aircraft in the U.S. because Airbus is manufactured overseas. However, in that case, we find the aircraft was owned by a company in Los Angeles called International Lease Finance Corp. So it was owned by a company in Los Angeles and leased to Yemenia Airways. The families could sue in the U.S. the leasing company on a theory of, for example, negligent entrustment — that [the owner] knew Yemenia Airways was not competent to operate the aircraft safely. [It] knew that because the aircraft had been banned from the [European Union]. The theory would be that you, the leasing company, gave an aircraft to an airline that you knew was not capable of operating it safely — sort of like giving a shotgun to a 5-year-old. With regard to the Air France case, you wouldn’t be able to sue unless you could find a component part responsible for the crash and manufactured here.
Editor’s note: Internation Lease Finance Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.