If you've been involved in an airplane or aviation accident, any lawsuit that follows will be complex. If you've found an aviation law lawyer to take your case, learn about scope of work going into it. The process starts with investigating your case, working with expert witnesses and preparing for a trial.
Investigation of the Accident Scene
One of the first steps your lawyer will take is to investigate the crash scene and hire a consultant to help with the lawsuit. The consultant won't be a witness in your trial, but helps your lawyer build your case. Typically consultants have strong backgrounds in the aviation industry. They often worked for aviation companies or the government, and know the key people in the industry.
Gathering information about the accident and possible causes helps your lawyer focus on the types of experts and evidence needed to prove your case. Three main areas investigated are:
- Possible pilot error. Your lawyer looks to see if a pilot's training, mistakes, health conditions or other behavior were factors in the accident
- Mechanical problems with the aircraft. Were there problems with a plane's equipment or systems that caused or contributed to the crash? Types of problems include parts breakage or failure, controls for the plane's systems, such as fuel system or landing gear or problems with maintenance and repairs
- External factors. Other factors or causes in accidents include problems with air traffic control, airport and runway conditions, weather and fuel quality
Access in Accident Investigations
Access to the accident scene, and more importantly, plane wreckage, is an issue in an aviation lawsuit. While there's a need to preserve and examine the salvaged plane or parts, access is limited. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) takes control and custody of the plane wreckage, and often keeps it for 6 to 18 months. The statute of limitations, the time for filing your lawsuit, may not be much longer, 24 months in many states. Your lawyer may have to find other methods to gather needed information for your case.
Access to plane wreckage may impact your lawyer's selection and use of expert witnesses in your case. The NTSB may allow experts for your case to view wreckage or watch engine inspection, or access the wreckage. The NTSB is sensitive to time limits faced by plaintiffs. Aircraft manufacturer or insurance representatives often already have access, and have roles in the NTSB investigation.
Reconstructing the Accident
Accident reconstruction experts are hired by your lawyer to gather information from the crash site. These experts glean information from damage to vegetation and trees, marks on the ground from impact, and burn marks from fires, for example. It's possible experts will find physical evidence, such as plane parts at the scene, or in nearby areas, missed by NTSB crews. Visual inspections, diagrams and measurements and photography are used in examining the crash site.
There are several other sources for accident information your lawyer will research. Local fire and police department reports, media reports and witness statements can provide important evidence. The added information can help your lawyer narrow down the cause of the accident and which parties are responsible.
Experts Witnesses and Preparing for Trial
Your lawyer will likely have a team of expert witnesses for your case. Many experts will address issues specific to the aircraft and accident cause. Others provide testimony on your losses, such as your damages for pain and suffering, and the fear experienced before a crash.
Experts addressing aviation issues cover a wide range of topics. These include pilot and flight systems, condition of the plane and whether it was worthy to fly, metallurgy, manufacturing, electrical systems and avionics.
Working closely with expert witnesses is a major part of preparing your case for trial. Coordinating documents and resources prepares experts for depositions during discovery, the process where parties to your lawsuit gather information about the case. The scope of discovery can affect what evidence can be admitted during the trial, so this stage is important.
Visual aids are often used in aviation lawsuits, such as computer-created animation. Advance planning by your lawyer and experts avoids problems with admitting the evidence at trial. The final result is an organized and convincing view of your case to the judge and jury.