Have you ever wondered what happens after a plane crashes? I mean beyond the pain and suffering of victims, beyond the despair and agony of survivors and relatives, beyond the recovery of the “black box” and air crash investigations (that have well been dramatised by various reconstructions on National Geographic…). What happens next?
Enter: aviation lawyers. When a plane goes down, breaks down or suffers a serious incident involving death or injury, there are bound to be lawsuits. Someone is to be blamed, and it is not necessary always just the airline company. It may be the fault of the air traffic control, or it may be caused by a design defect that the plane manufacturer oversaw. Sometimes a plane is shotdown accidentally by a missile, and other times, we may never really know the reason why a plane just “disappeared” off the radar. But one thing is for sure: there will be lawsuits.
As macabre and gruesome as an air crash can be, it is not uncommon that relatives or survivors who have barely had time to grieve are approached by briefcase-wielding lawyers who promise “justice” and compensation. Crudely put, if lives cannot be recovered from the wreckage, at least loss and damage can. And that loss and damage can be best measured in dollar signs.
And a part of international air law deals with the issue of recovery after a major aviation disaster. There are international conventions (e.g. the Montreal Convention of 1999, made in this very city, but applicable in most countries and to the vast majority of international air travel) which deals with liability in the event of death or injury, and a sticking point has been where to sue. Among the list of places, the place of domicile of the passenger can be a potential place to bring legal action, as is the place of business of the air carrier, the place of destination and place where the contract was made.
It may sound straightforward, but creative (or cunning, however you want to interpret it…) lawyers have come up with ways to file law suits in countries where they can best squeeze money out of the alleged liable party. Many cases have as a result end up in the United States, where it is known that juries can be more generous and less lenient about punishing the responsible party. Not only that, the US legal system is often seen as more impartial, efficient and speedy compared to court systems in many foreign countries. So naturally, like insects to a lamp, plaintiffs flock to the US.
There have been numerous cases where passengers or the air carrier have very little any connection to the US. But sometimes, the thick tongues and antics of litigation lawyers have manage to succeed in their claims and walk away with millions. Critics say this exploitation of the system and of gaps in the law that allows plaintiffs to “shop” for forums in the hope of striking gold. Lawsuits are expensive and longlasting affairs, and can be a serious drain on a country’s legal resources. So it is understandable why some complain that actions that have no real connection to a country should be thrown out. Besides, if a crash occurred elsewhere, involving foreign parties, is it not naturally easier to collect the evidence and summon witnesses at that place, instead of having the legal battle play out in some remote US courtroom far, far away from the victims and alleged responsible parties? Court have tried to deal with this problem, citing the idea of forum non conveniens (the idea that a more appropriate forum for legal action is available), but the record has not been consistent.
Air crashes are tragic incidents. They are certain to make the front page news, perhaps because of the extremity of loss of life and property, or perhaps because of our morbid fascination with a horrible way to die. Behind the scenes, barely has the smoke dissipated or tears dried, you can almost hear the footsteps of marching lawyers, and the clinking, clanking sound of money…