It's hard to believe that it was a mere 110 years ago that mankind
had no experience in heavier-than-air flight – and it took only
half that time for us to get to the moon. Today, air travel is one of
the safest and fastest methods of getting anywhere in the world (National
Geographic claims more people die in donkey-related accidents each year
than die of aviation-related accidents). But for all of the precautions,
plane crashes, when they do occur, are almost universally horrible tragedies.
We asked an aviation attorney in Florida to talk us through an example
Anatomy of a Plane Crash
A modern aircraft is an extraordinarily complex machine. Even the four-person,
single-engine microplanes are a maze of gears, pistons, gauges, hydraulics,
electrics, pneumatics, and mechanics – and while many backup systems
and redundancies are built in, there will always be elements that can
cause a plane crash if they fail.
In fact, mechanical failure is the leading cause of airplane crashes. Mechanical
failure, in technical terms, means "one or more parts of the airplane
became compromised in a manner that prevented the plane from continuing
to fly normally." A gasket in a gasoline line failing or an instrument
that gave the pilot the wrong data are two arbitrary examples.
The other major reason that airplane wrecks occur is pilot error. Any of
the thousands of mistakes a pilot might make that lead to the plane being
unable to fly properly fall under the umbrella of 'pilot error'.
Unfortunately for the survivors looking for someone to blame, pilot error
is notoriously hard to prove.
The first part of any aviation disaster – after the impact –
is the investigation. Specialists in a dozen different disciplines swarm
over the site collecting information. Investigators pore over the crew
files, the maintenance records, and the flight manifests looking for clues.
Eventually, one or more of the victim's families will hire an aviation
lawyer. Florida law allows them to pursue separate or combined cases,
so the number of attorneys may vary case by case.
Depending on how nasty the crash is and how many factors are involved,
it can take anywhere from a few days to several years before the courts
apportion blame for the accident Of course, the airplane manufacturer
and the airline itself always have their own lawyers whose job is to prove
that their respective entities are not at fault. Occasionally the families
of the pilot(s) and crew will even hire their own lawyers to defend their
deceased relatives from blame.
Once all of the lawyers have collected, sifted, and weighed the evidence,
they will all argue in court and the judge will determine once and for
all where the blame lies. Only then can the blame-carriers be sued for
the wrongful deaths and other related charges by the families of the victims.