Looking at Airline Liability and Victim’s Rights in the Wake of the Malaysian Air Tragedy

plane.jpgFive months ago, few Americans had heard of Malaysia Airlines. Now, of course, they’ve held the headlines for months with two flights ending in tragedy in a just a short time. Particularly after this most recent tragedy, our Northern California aviation accident law firm has heard from many community members who are curious about the legal rights of families in the case of similar aviation tragedies.

Remembering the Victims of Flight 17
We could cite any of hundreds of news reports to provide a brief summary of the Flight 17 story, but we were drawn to a report from CNN that looks at a small sample of the lives lost in this tragedy. As CNN explains, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine on Thursday July 17, 2014. There were 298 people aboard the passenger flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia. The victims included 193 Dutch citizens, a total that includes the sole American victim who had dual citizenship, and 43 Malaysians. A champion rower, an AIDS researcher, restaurateurs, a nun, students, and successful businesspeople were among those lost. We encourage readers to take a look at the faces and brief biographies of some of the victims; we do not want the victims’ stories to be lost amidst the rest of the coverage.

Compensating International Aviation Accident Victims Under the Montreal Convention
In 1999, the Montreal Convention was adopted to help create a uniform system of rules dealing with the international carriage of both goods and people. One goal was to create a system for compensating the victims of air tragedies. Previously, victims had to show willful neglect to recover damages and the treaty sought to protect passengers and reduce litigation by eliminating this rule. Pursuant to the Convention, Malaysia Airlines is strictly liable to the families who lost loved ones aboard Flight 17 for up to 113,100 Special Drawing Rights, a figure based on the value of a mix of currency values. We would expect that the victims of Flight 17 would be liable for the full amount. A currency calculator clarifies that the airline would be liable for about $174,000 per passenger, regardless of whether the carrier is found to be at fault.

Victims can pursue additional damages beyond the 113,100 SDR. When there are claims above the base amount, negligence becomes an issue. In order to avoid paying greater claim amounts, the airline would need to show either that it was not negligent or lay the blame fully on the negligence of a third-party. Notably, this places this burden of proof on the airline instead of the claimants as would be the case in a typical U.S. civil suit. Malaysian Airlines would need to argue that they were reasonable in choosing the flight path, a point that would probably be fiercely debated. A quick search for opinions reveals a CNN piece that notes flying over a conflict zone is not an unusual practice and a New York Times report that discusses the Montreal Convention and raises questions about the reasonableness of the Airlines’ decision.

Our Commitment to Air Accident Victims in Northern California
Aviation law is a complex field. From in-flight injuries to tragic crashes and everything in-between, our San Francisco aviation injury law firm is ready to help victims navigate this detailed arena. Whether your case involves a large international flight or a small private plane, we are here to help Northern Californians coping with aviation accidents and air tragedies. Call if we can put our knowledge to work for you.

See Related Blog Posts:
Malaysian Aircraft Leaves Barely a Trace and Plenty of Unanswered Questions
Aviation Safety: An Update on Asiana Flight 214

(Image by Mark Harkin)