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The Claims are Paid, Now What? Subrogation!

The Claims are Paid, Now What? Subrogation!

by Scott Brooksby

“Sir, it is wrong to stir up law-suits; but when once it is certain that a law-suit is to go on, there is nothing wrong in a lawyer’s endeavoring that he shall have the benefit, rather than another.” –Samuel Johnson


Subrogation is defined for present purposes as the substitution of one person in the place of another with respect to a lawful claim or right. Subrogation is the right that every insurance company reserves in all insurance policies to recover losses from a third-party who contributed to or caused the loss.  It is one of the oldest concepts in jurisprudence.  However, the doctrine is not well understood, even by lawyers and judges who may not deal with subrogation issues on a regular basis.

Webster’s defines subrogation as:

The assumption by a third party (such as a second creditor or an insurance company) of another’s legal right to collect a debt or damages


Subrogation in the aviation context has important implications for insurers and insureds. When markets are rising, most carriers make money on their investments.  When markets are down, and especially when they crash, as they did in 2008 and 2009, carriers may lose money, in part because margins are somewhat limited by market performance.  However, subrogation claims, when carefully evaluated and handled, provide carriers a right to recover dollars that may be easier to collect than premium dollars.  Successful collection on subrogation claims may have significant impact on insurer financial performance.  Insureds also benefit from effective subrogation claims because ever-increasing deductibles can be recovered and result in better loss history and lower rates.

Brief Historical Overview: Roman Origins

Subrogation, as a legal concept, dates back to Roman times. Under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-AD 138) Roman law began to shape the building blocks of subrogation.  The relation of suretyship could be created by stipulation.  Gary L. Wickert, The Societal Benefits of Subrogation https://www.mwl-law.com/defending-subrogation/. For broad historical perspective, see Saul Litvinoff, Subrogation, 50 La. L. Rev. (1990) http://digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5249&context=lalrev.

Although modern subrogation may have had its roots in Roman suretyship, scholars have generally noted that the Roman law required a more positive act to transfer rights before subrogation could occur. Therefore, many have raised the possibility that the modern doctrine arose somewhat independently of Roman and French antecedents as a purely English theory that seems to have had its origins in the courts of Equity.  M.L. Marasinghe, An Historical Introduction to the Doctrine of Subrogation: The Early History of the Doctrine I, 10 Val U.L. Rev. 45 (1975).

Commenting on Roman equity, one scholar expressed a view that subrogation was unknown to the Romans in the context in which it appears in the common law today. In Roman law, “subrogate” was a well-known term of constitutional law, providing for the replacement of one official by another or replacing one official’s actions with another’s action. Id., at 46, citing W.W. Buckland, Equity in Roman Law, 47-54 (1911).

Of subrogation, Buckland further reasoned that

“The corresponding right in English law, at least in case of a surety, amounts to actual subrogation, and is declared to be based on natural justice, no attempt being made to deduce it from any defined principle.” Id., citing Buckland at 54.

Therefore, under English common law, no express transference of rights has been required. Marasinghe, supra, at 46.

Brief History: Anglo-American Subrogation

“I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some attention to”

–Noam Chomsky

Despite its ancient roots, modern subrogation is a distinct concept, bearing little resemblance to the Roman version. It appears that the concept of subrogation was formally incorporated into the English common law in the Magna Carta, which provides:

Neither We nor Our bailiffs shall seize any land or rent for any debt so long as the debtor’s chattels are sufficient to discharge the same; nor shall the debtor’s sureties be distrained so long as the debtor is able to pay the debt. If the debtor fails to pay, not having the means to pay, then the sureties shall answer the debt, and, if they desire, they shall hold the debtor’s lands and rents until they have received satisfaction of the debt which they have paid for him, unless the debtor can show that he has discharged his obligation to them.  A.E. Dick Howard, Magna Carta, Text & Commentary 39 (rev. ed. 1998).

Although a complete historical analysis is far beyond the scope of this paper, the English judges linked subrogation to the equitable principle of contribution. Id., citing Pothier, Treatise on Obligation 259 (3d Amer. Ed. 1853).  By 1782 the common law courts had recognized the doctrine of subrogation and were using it “as if it had always been part of the common law of England.”  Marasinghe, at 49.  In Mason v Sainsbury, 3 Doug. 61, 64, 99 Eng. Rep. 525 (1782),  Lord Chief Justice Mansfield stated:   “Every day, the insurer is put in the place of the insured.  The insurer uses the name of the insured.” Id.

However, subrogation in the modern Anglo-American context has different meanings in different contexts. Modern subrogation can be generally categorized into three types:

Contractual subrogation, which is based on the contract between the parties such as subrogation language in an insurance policy. This is sometimes called “conventional subrogation”.

Equitable subrogation, sometimes called “legal subrogation,” is a product of equity. Equitable subrogation is not dependent on the existence of any contract assignment or privity.  It arises by operation of law out of the fairness doctrine.

Statutory subrogation is a mechanism that gives a carrier a right to recover certain benefits. Statutory subrogation may arise in areas such as workers compensation, hospital liens, and Medicare among other things.

Subrogation Waivers

A typical subrogation clause in an aviation insurance contract may read: “If we pay a claim under your policy, we will take over your right to recover that amount from any other person or organization.  You agree to cooperate with us and not to do anything that will interfere with our chances of recovery.”

The aviation industry is contract-intensive. Aviation-related contracts very often contain subrogation waivers in which each of the parties to the contract agrees to maintain its own insurance and also agrees to waive subrogation rights that may otherwise exist or arise with respect to insured losses. Waivers of subrogation most often apply to hull claims, but may sometimes be requested in product liability, airplane, airport, and hangar leases and pilot training.

A representative sample of a contractual subrogation waiver typically reads as follows:

“To the extent that any loss of any kind is covered or paid by any insurer, the contracting parties hereby waive subrogation or contribution rights against each other and their respective officers, agents and employees, and the contracting parties shall notify their respective insurers of this waiver of subrogation agreement and shall cause this waiver of subrogation agreement to be included in the insurance policies secured by each of the contracting parties.

A waiver of subrogation will result in the insurance carrier waiving the right to recover amounts paid under the policy from the person or entity that caused the loss. For example, a regional operator may contract with an FBO for pilot service.  Before a flight, the FBO requires execution of a subrogation waiver against the FBO related to the pilot service.  Assume further that the insurance company agrees to the waiver.  On the flight, the pilot fails to lower the landing gear, causing significant damage.  Without the waiver, the insurance company would have paid to repair the loss and then pursued a subrogation claim  against the FBO’s insurance.

As a practical matter, failure to provide a requested waiver may result in a failure to obtain the desired contract. However, before executing a waiver, insureds should recognize that there are significant downsides:

  • The insured could void the policy if the waiver is provided without receiving approval and endorsement from the insurer.
  • Losses that could have been subrogated may be fully charged against the policy loss record.
  • There may be a premium charge involved in providing the waiver.

The validity of waivers in aviation contracts has long been recognized. In Continental Manufacturing Corp. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, 185 Cal. App. 2d 545 (1960), the court held that an aviation insurer was not obligated to make a hull loss payment to its insured.  The insured had executed an earlier lease agreement that had released the party responsible, and therefore improperly defeated the insurer’s right of subrogation.

Aircraft Financing and Subrogation Waivers

Aircraft financiers typically require a waiver of subrogation to protect themselves from any action by the airline’s insurers who, at common law, are subrogated to all rights which the insured may have against third-parties, including financiers. Rod D. Margo, Aspects of Insurance in Aviation Finance, 62 J. Air L. & Com. 423, 455 (1996).  http://scholar.smu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1428&context=jalc

Under English law, a waiver of subrogation clause cannot be relied on by a person who is not a party to the insurance contract. Id., at 456, citing National Oilwell (U.K.) Ltd. v Davy Offhsore Ltd., (1993) 2 Lloyd’s rep. 582, 602-04 (Eng. Q.B.); Enimont Supply SA v. Chesapeake Shipping Inc. (the “Surf City”), (1995) 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 242 (Eng. Q.B.).  Therefore, unless the financier has also been endorsed as an additional insured under the airline’s policy, a waiver of subrogation will likely be unenforceable for lack of privity of contract.

A waiver of subrogation is probably unnecessary where the financier is endorsed as an additional insured under the airline’s policy because the policies make it clear that an insurer cannot exercise any such rights of subrogation against their own insureds. Margo, supra, at 456.

Subrogation and the Non-Owner Pilot

Whether it is the owner or a lessor, some broad form of all-loss insurance is generally carried by the party that has the care, custody and control of the aircraft, and is responsible for maintaining the airworthiness of the aircraft and has dispatch authority. A non-owner pilot is the pilot named under the policy other than the owner, a pilot using the aircraft under the open pilot warranty or “permissive pilot” provision ,or a renter.

The insurance contract is an agreement between the insurer and the purchaser of the policy. Unless the pilot is an employee of the owner, he may be subject to a subrogation action.  For this reason, as discussed above, many contract pilots and pilot service companies usually demand that the aircraft owner or named insured provide the contract pilot with a waiver of subrogation and status as an “additional insured” under the policy.

The Importance of Spoliation Considerations in Aviation Subrogation

Complex issues arise when the insurer elects to undertake a spoliation investigation. For example, physical evidence which may be critical to insured and uninsured losses may need to be collectively preserved.  It may not even be clear which components or evidence in a subrogation claim relate to insured and uninsured losses for some time.  At the outset, it is necessary to determine who is responsible for preservation of any relevant evidence.  In most subrogation cases the plaintiff must preserve the evidence, but in aviation cases that responsibility generally falls to a potential defendant.

In aviation cases, preservation of evidence in subrogation cases is more complicated because the NTSB has complete authority to assume custody of evidence relevant to its investigation. .  Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 1901 et. seq., the NTSB also has the ability to limit party participation status.  See 49 C.F.R. § 831.11(a)(1).

Since the regulations also exclude persons who represent claimants or insurers from party status under 49 C.F.R. 831.11(a)(3), the NTSB and potential defendants typically have control of the investigation and the evidence during the important period between the time of the accident and the time the evidence is released to the owing party, often the hull insurer. The NTSB also prohibits lawyers or insurers or anyone whose role is the pursuit or defense of claims from participating in the process.

If the NTSB destroys, loses or otherwise is responsible for spoliation of the evidence, a lawsuit against the NTSB is precluded by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. See Black Hills Aviation Inc. v. United States, 34 F.3d 968, 976 (10th Cir. 1994).

The potential defendant manufacturers or other party participants to an NTSB accident investigation do not share the same protections or immunities. In Lowe v. TDU Industries, Inc., 2005 WL 1983750 (Cal. App 2d Dist. Aug. 18, 2005), an engine manufacturer lost the engine cylinders.  The court ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to an inference instruction that the cylinders would have supported plaintiff’s theory.  California, in particular, has created affirmative liability for spoliation of evidence.  See, e.g., Johnson v. United Services Automobile Association, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 234 (1998).

The Made Whole Doctrine

Among the many subrogation doctrines which is not well understood, and which takes many different state-specific forms, is the made whole doctrine. A complete discussion of the made whole doctrine is far beyond the scope of this article.

Because subrogation may lead to adverse consequences for insureds, the common law developed the made whole doctrine which limits the use of subrogation before an insured party receives full compensation for damages. As one scholar notes, the made whole doctrine is the “principal weapon used by contemporary courts to curb the harsh effect of contractual subrogation on the rights of the insured.”  Parker, Johnny C., The Made Whole Doctrine: Unraveling the Enigma Wrapped in the Mystery of Insurance Subrogation. Missouri Law Review, Vol. 70, 723, 723-775 (October, 2005) http://law.missouri.edu/lawreview/files/2012/11/Parker.pdf.

As originally developed, the made whole doctrine applied to subrogation, whether legal or conventional. Therefore, even where the insurer had paid all of the policy proceeds and included an expressed subrogation provision in the policy, the right to subrogation was stayed until the insured received complete compensation. Id., at 773.

However, many states have adopted a modified application of the made whole doctrine and have concluded that since the doctrine is of equitable origins and conventional subrogation is grounded upon a legal contract, the parties are free to agree that the rule does not apply. At least 14 jurisdictions have adopted a view that parties are free to agree that the made whole rule is inapplicable. Id.

The Anti-Subrogation Doctrine

Simply defined, the anti-subrogation doctrine provides that subrogation rights exist only as to third-parties.  The doctrine is a defense which provides that since the insurance company is standing in the shoes of its insured, it cannot sue its own insured, in whose shoes it stands.  The doctrine also prevents an insurer from pursuing a subrogation action against a third-party who qualifies as an additional insured.  The rule implicates public policy considerations, including the prevention of suits by insurers against insureds to recover for the very losses for which they have paid for coverage in the form of premiums and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.

Aviation insurance is a specialty line of coverage, often involving very large risks and more complex underwriting issues than most types of insurance. As a result, there are fewer aviation insurers, and the anti-subrogation doctrine may come into play more often.

If the potential defendant in a subrogation action is an insured or an additional insured on the same policy of insurance, a carrier paying a property damage claim cannot subrogate against an insured or additional insured on the same policy.

If the potential target of a subrogation action and the party sustaining the loss are both insured under different policies with the same insurer, there is a split of authority.

If a plaintiff property insurance carrier and a separate liability insurance carrier have both provided policies of insurance to the defendant, the anti-subrogation rule generally does not apply and subrogation is generally permitted if the companies are both members of the same family or group of companies.

Warranty Limitations That May Affect Subrogation Claims

Few lawyers enjoy working through situations that require analysis of the application of the economic loss rule. Although a complete discussion of the rule is far beyond the scope of this paper, it can be defined simply as the prohibition of the recovery of damages under tort theories such as negligence or strict liability when a product defect results in only economic loss, but does not cause personal injury or damage to any other property other than the product.  For a detailed explanation of the economic loss rule see Jamie Mayrose, “A “Simple” Explanation of the Economic Loss Rule”, Under Construction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Winter, 2016.  https://www.americanbar.org/publications/under_construction/2016/winter2016/economic_loss_rule.html

In its application, the economic loss rule precludes contracting parties from asserting tort causes of action as a means to recover economic or commercial losses arising out of a contract, and precludes a purchaser of a product from recovering from a manufacturer on a tort theory for damages that are solely economic.

The economic loss doctrine has implications in the context of aviation subrogation. In general, the economic loss doctrine applies to bar recovery if an allegedly defective part is part of the original bargain when an aircraft was purchased.  However, if the replacement part is not part of the original sale, the economic loss rule does not bar tort claims.  This is important in the context of aviation where contractual defenses such as warranty disclaimers and limitations of liability may severely restrict the ability to recover under contract theories.

The following warranty limitation is representative of the type of clause typically contained in many types of aviation-related contracts such as overhaul facilities:

Limited Warranty for Services and Components: _________ warrants that the services performed hereunder will comply with applicable FAA regulations in effect as of the date the work is performed (as interpreted by the FAA office having jurisdiction over the facility at which the work is performed) and will be free from defects in workmanship and material, including new components manufactured by ________, under normal use for one (1) year and for ninety (90) days on used components refurbished by ________ from date of installation. The warranty on all other new and used components shall be limited to the warranty provided by the supplying manufacturer or vendor, if any. This warranty does not apply to (i) normal wear and tear, (ii) the consequences of accident, negligence, abuse or misuse, or of repair, removal, reinstallation or alteration other than by ___________ and (iii) to Customer furnished parts or equipment or to work which, at Customers direction, was not performed in accordance with ____________ standard operating procedures. The sole and exclusive remedy of Customer, and ___________ sole and exclusive liability, with respect to this warranty is limited to repair or replacement (at _____________ option) of the nonconforming or defective work or component. Such repair or replacement shall be performed at a ___________ facility and Customer shall be responsible for transportation costs. THE FOREGOING WARRANTY IS IN LIEU OF, AND THE CUSTOMER HEREBY WAIVES, ALL OTHER WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR USE.

Limitation of Liability: In no event shall ___________ be liable for any special, incidental, consequential and/or punitive damages, including, without limitation, loss of profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use, loss of time, diminution of value, or inconvenience, even if informed of the possibility of such damages. In the event _________ physically damages Customer’s property, Customer’s sole and exclusive remedy, and ____________ sole and exclusive liability, is limited to the repair or replacement (at ______________ option) of the damaged portion of the property.

As the representative limited warranty and limitations of liability provisions above make clear, pursuit of subrogation claims for the full award of damages which would be recoverable in the absence of such limitation provisions becomes much more questionable.


In addition to many other important subrogation principles, subrogation in the aviation context requires particularly careful economic evaluation, and budgeting.  Both pursuing and defending aviation subrogation cases in an economically rational manner requires careful adherence to litigation budgets.

The economics of aviation subrogation and the efficient pursuit of the intended economic offset or recovery, or the successful defense of a subrogation claim both require careful assessment of the potential recovery, the technical issues associated with proving causation, the impact of NTSB investigations and the other logistics of the potential claim, such as location of the wreckage, discovery, and witnesses.

In addition, the economics which may drive whether or not to pursue or defend a subrogation claim in the aviation context will be influenced by factors such as subrogation waivers, aircraft financing contracts, the made whole doctrine, complex conflict and ethical issues, and even the variations on policies covering pilots.

Scott Brooksby to speak on pilot accidents and to serve on the Oregon Aviation Industries Board of Directors

The Oregon Aviation Industries Board of Directors voted unanimously on August 26, 2016, to approve Scott Brooksby’s nomination to serve on the Oregon Aviation Industries Board of Directors.

Scott’s aviation law knowledge includes pilot mental conditions that may lead to accidents.  He will be speaking on this subject at the Columbia Aviation Association, www.caapilots.com, on Thursday September 1, 2016, with a focus on Germanwings Flight 9525 that impacted a mountain in March 2015.

Scott’s many years of experience in aviation litigation, his industry connections and his wide range of talents will be a huge asset to ORAVI.

ORAVI is comprised of 400+ companies in aviation and related businesses.  These include aircraft and part manufacturers, flying services, heavy lift helicopter services, unmanned aerial vehicle systems, airports, maintenance and suppliers to these industries.

The Columbia Aviation Association, where Scott is speaking on September 1,  is located at the Aurora State, Oregon Airport (UAO).  CAA was founded in 1949 as a private organization devoted to flying.  After being located at the Portland International Airport (PDX) for forty five years, members completed the beautiful new Aurora clubhouse in 1996.  Membership is by invitation only and requirements include possession of a private pilots certificate.  Most of the club’s 260 members have advanced ratings and are aircraft owners who fly on a regular basis for business and pleasure.

Pilot mental fitness is a critical aspect of aviation safety.  As Jet Blue Founder and former CEO David Neeleman recently suggested, “nobody ever thought about having to protect the passengers from the pilots”.  In the wake of the tragic circumstances surrounding Germanwings 9525 and MH370, the FAA chartered the Pilot Mental Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which released its report in November, 2015.  But mental health issues are complex, and no system of detection, voluntary, or outside reporting is perfect.  Scott will discuss the circumstances in Germanwings 9525 and other notable incidents, which have spiked in the last two decades.  Scott will discuss the findings and recommendations in the FAA ARC final report.  He will also explore the issues surrounding the current system of pilot mental health from the perspective of the flying public, the airlines, the regulators, and pilots.

Scott Brooksby featured as speaker on the Germanwings crash.

Scott Brooksby spoke on a panel in New York, NY at the  American Conference Institute’s 8th Annual Forum on Defending and Managing Aviation Claims and Litigation.  His panel was entitled “SPOTLIGHT ON FLIGHT CREW MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES Post-Germanwings: An In Depth Discussion of the Legal, Regulatory, Public Safety and Ethical Considerations”.   On June 27, 2016, Scott and other distinguished panelists spoke on the following topics:
• An in depth discussion of aeromedical
issues and developments following last year’s
Germanwings crash
• What procedures are currently in place
to identify mental health issues in pilots,
crew-members, air traffic controllers? —
Are they enough?
• Who should be in possession of a
crew-member’s mental health information?
• Who has what responsibilities to make reports
of other crew-members’ mental health info?
• Who regulates this?
• Assessing considerations of confidentiality
with considerations of public safety
• Under what circumstances can medical data
be shared and with whom?
• What strides is the FAA taking in response to
the Germanwings tragedy? (ARC and Amsis)
• Addressing current issues and challenges related to:
– Awareness and reporting of emotional
and mental health issues
– Methods used to evaluate pilot emotional
and mental health
– Barriers to reporting such issues
– Surveillance and oversight of designees and
aviation industry substance-abuse programs
• A discussion of the ethical challenges and
considerations, and how to best navigate them

Scott Brooksby will be a featured speaker at the 2016 International Air and Transportation Safety Bar Association Conference in Washington, DC

Scott Brooksby will be speaking at the 2016 International Air and Transportation Safety Bar Association Conference April 28 – April 30, 2016, in Washington, DC.  He will be speaking with other distinguished panelists, including James Rodriguez from the national Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding “Obtaining Testimony from the NTSB”.

Scott Brooksby practices aviation and product liability defense.  He is an experienced trial lawyer who has defended businesses, manufacturers, and organizations in many personal injury and and commercial cases. He has defended and counseled product manufacturers and distributors in a variety of industries including aviation, drugs and medical devices, toys and recreational products, paints and solvents, power tools, heavy equipment and machinery, retail, food, consumer products, and automobiles. He is the former co-chair of a large West Coast law firm’s product liability practice group.

Scott has tried numerous personal injury and product liability cases in Oregon state and federal courts.

In cases that do not necessitate a trial, Scott is a skilled negotiator who has resolved hundreds of cases through arbitration and mediation. He has successfully argued many motions that resulted in the dismissal of claims, or outright dismissal of his client. He also has experience counseling product liability clients regarding the avoidance of litigation, handling product recalls, product modifications, and unwanted governmental intervention.

Scott has litigated everything from small defective product claims to catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases involving punitive damages.  He has experience with medical treatment issues that result from falls, burns and amputation injuries in manufacturing facilities.

As one of the few lawyers in Oregon with significant aviation experience, Scott has litigated helicopter and plane crash cases, as well as aviation component part product liability claims.  Scott was co-counsel on a team that defended a large aviation product manufacturer in a months-long trial.

Aircraft Wheel-Well Stowaways: Can Security Breaches Lead to Mass Torts?

Businesswoman standing in airplane engine

From Scott Brooksby’s article, “Aircraft Wheel-Well Stowaways: Can Security Breaches Lead to Mass Torts?”, published in the American Bar Association’s Mass Torts, Practice Points on October 9, 2015:

In recent years, wheel-well stowaways have received increasing media attention and public interest. Statistics on the manner of death and the factors that keep stowaways alive are not precise.

Most of these incidents happen for refugee and humanitarian reasons. However, assuming the physiological obstacles of hypothermia and hypoxia are overcome, one major question remains: What legal implications are raised if a stowaway with destructive intent caused a major tragedy?

Usually, a stowaway jumps into an aircraft by hanging on to the airliner’s landing gear as the plane takes off, and the force of the wind can easily make a stowaway fall to his or her death. The overwhelming majority of stowaways are young males. Because stowaways must stay within the landing-gear area, they face other risks too, such as being crushed in a confined space when the gear retracts, falling when the plane is landing, or dying from the heat produced by the engines of the aircraft.

The Data
The following introduction is based on FAA data.

The first recorded case of an aircraft stowaway occurred on June 13, 1929. The Bernard monoplane Oiseau Canari, piloted by Frenchmen Assollant Lefevre, had trouble taking off in spite of its powerful Hispano Suiza engine. The crew later discovered the cause of the problem: a stowaway on board. Despite the overload, the plane landed in Spain after 22 hours of flight.

Physiological threats for a stowaway are minimal at altitudes up to 8,000 feet, but at higher altitudes, reduced atmospheric pressure and partial pressure of oxygen may have deleterious effects. At all cruising altitudes, the partial pressure of oxygen in a wheel well cannot sustain consciousness. Additionally, at altitudes of about 20,000 feet, stowaways may develop decompression sickness.

All of the scientific research suggests that, after takeoff, a stowaway faces two life-threatening conditions during flight: hypoxia and hypothermia. In 1993, the fatality of a 19-year old who stowed away in the wheel well of a plane bound from Columbia to JFK International Airport was one of the 13 wheel-well stowaway flights documented in a report by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI), and Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) as having frozen to death.

According to the FAA, from 1947 to 2014 there have been 94 flights involving 105 people who stowed away worldwide. Of those 105 people, 80 died and 25 survived. The 25 people who survived represent a 23.8 percent survival rate.

In 2014 as discussed above, a 16-year old California boy jumped a fence at San Jose International Airport and squeezed into the wheel well of a flight bound for Maui, where he emerged five hours later, in good health. Experts surmised that the teen’s youth could be an advantage, as the brains of young people adapt more easily to hypothermia and hypoxia, for reasons that are not completely understood.

Similarly, a 21-year old Indonesian man hid in the wheel well of a Garuda Indonesia flight from Sumatra to Jakarta.

Some experts also believe that motivation for some (younger) stowaways to escape is prompted by politically dangerous homeland conditions that compel their departure under desperate circumstances. That can affect their brains by producing a “virtual hibernative state,” where their bodies become temporarily more adaptable to trauma.

Possible Outcomes
There may be a number of consequences of security breaches by aircraft wheel-well stowaways and their on-board actions, despite the present physiological obstacles. Among these include:

  • widespread concern about security at public, airline, security provider, airport, and government levels
  • direct action by, influence on, payment for, or extortion by extremists determined to cause a catastrophe through the use of an explosive device or alteration of a plane’s existing safety features
  • government-levied fines for airlines, airports, private security companies, local police, and federal agents based on security breaches
  • increased security measures imposed by airport, airline, local, state, and federal authorities
  • lawsuits by agencies, airlines, or security companies against the indigent stowaways are unlikely, although deportation is possible

With the proliferation of wheel-well stowaways, it is likely only a matter of time until a serious mass-tort tragedy occurs.

Lasers on the ground pose a threat to aviation safety

Airplane wing

Laser beams on the ground pose a danger to aircraft — this is a serious issue that is well-known to commercial airline pilots.  The following is from Scott Brooksby’s article,  “Aircraft Laser Incidents: A Clear and Present Danger to Aviation Safety” published in the American Bar Association’s Mass Torts Practice Points on June 22, 2015:

Reports of aircraft targeting with handheld ground lasers have been rising sharply. In 2005, there were 300 reported incidents. By 2014, there were 3,894 reported incidents. Exposure to laser illumination may cause hazardous effects to pilots, such as pain, distraction or disorientation, loss of depth perception, and aborted landings.

The increase in reports of ground-based lasers targeting flying aircraft may be due to a number of factors, including the increased availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet, higher-power lasers that can strike aircraft at higher altitudes, and increased reporting by flight crews. Regulatory power for laser-light products is delegated to the FDA, and its regulations are found at 21 C.F.R. § 1010.

While some jurisdictions have made interdiction efforts using helicopters and other improved tracking methods, catching laser offenders is difficult. The devices are small, and when extinguished can be easily concealed and the location of the user can be in sparsely populated areas. To respond to the increasing attacks, the FAA launched the Laser Safety Initiative, which provides education on laser hazards and events, news, law, and civil penalties, and encourages reporting.

The latest reports indicate that aircraft illuminations by handheld lasers are overwhelmingly green, as opposed to the previously common red. This is significant because they are 35 times brighter than red, and the wavelength of green lasers is close to the eye’s peak sensitivity when they are dark-adapted. FAA flight simulation studies have shown that the adverse visual effects from laser exposure are especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to the low-light level of a cockpit at night.

Restricted airspace surrounding commercial airports, in particular, can provide federal, state and/or local criminal penalties for violation with a laser, even if the operator is not operating the laser within the space, but merely causes the beam to intersect the controlled airspace to target an aircraft. In the United States, laser-airspace guidelines can be found in FAA Order JO 7400.2 (Revision “G” as of April 2008). Although it is far beyond the scope of this note, Chapter 29 of the order provides a comprehensive overview of the FAA’s laser guidelines.

In 2011, the FAA announced plans to impose civil penalties against people who point a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft. The FAA released a legal interpretation that concluded that directing a laser bean into an aircraft cockpit could interfere with a flight crew performing its duties while operating an aircraft, a violation of FAA regulations. The legal interpretation includes an analysis of 14 C.F.R. § 91.11, which establishes that “[n]o person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”

14 C.F.R. § 91.11 had initially been adopted in response to hijackings. However, the FAA legal interpretation concluded that nothing in the regulation specified that the person interfering must be on the airplane. Previously, the FAA had taken enforcement action only against passengers on board the aircraft that interfere with crewmembers. The maximum civil penalty is $11,000. By June 2012, the FAA had initiated 28 enforcement actions.

On February 14, 2012, President Obama signed Public Law 112-95. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, section 311, amended Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S.C) Chapter 2 § 39, by adding section 39A, which makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.

The unprecedented escalation in the number of recent aviation laser incidents, coupled with more powerful lasers, wide and easy availability of lasers, the increasingly bold use and difficulties with interdiction, all pose problems. The undisputed evidence that lasers pose a danger to flight crews suggests that a tragic accident may only be a matter of time.

Scott Brooksby is co-planning the 2016 ABA Aviation Litigation National Institute

Scott Brooksby will be involved in planning the American Bar Association’s 2016 22nd Annual National Institute on Aviation Litigation in New York, New York.

This prominent, annual conference features seasoned aviation lawyers who present and educate on a variety of aviation litigation topics.  Scott is on the aviation subcommittee of the American Bar Association’s Mass Torts section.

Scott Brooksby has experience representing airlines, aviation insurers, aviation product manufacturers, and airplane owners.  Scott has handled a broad variety of aviation law matters, including personal injury defense; product liability defense litigation; contract and lease drafting; contract negotiation and disputes; and general aviation commercial litigation.

Much of Scott’s practice is devoted to aviation law, and Olson Brooksby is one of the few firms in Oregon with aviation trial experience.  Scott Brooksby leads the firm’s aviation practice, devoting a substantial amount of his time and practice to aviation-related matters.

Scott served as local counsel for one of the largest aviation manufacturers in the world in a nine-week trial in Oregon state court.  The trial involved product liability issues and concerned a helicopter crash that resulted in burns, permanent injuries, and multiple deaths.

While Olson Brooksby’s specialized aviation practice is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the nature of the firm’s practice often takes its attorneys to various other geographical locations, particularly for investigations, witness interviews, and depositions.

Scott is experienced with a broad range of aviation law topics, and is familiar with allegations concerning: mechanical malfunctions due to airframe or component defects; improper repair or maintenance; improper weight and balance; weather; piloting and human factors; instruments and avionics; air traffic control; and even issues relating to bird strikes and lasers.

To curb medical helicopter crashes, focus on pilot haste, experience

Modern healthcare capture
Helicopter Emergency Medical Services crashes

Here’s an opinion piece by shareholder Scott Brooksby,  published in the June 10 issue of Modern Healthcare:

To curb medical helicopter crashes, focus on pilot haste, experience

A dramatic national conversation erupted recently following a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board finding that smart phone texting was a contributing factor in the crash of a fatal medical-helicopter flight in 2011.

The discussion has concentrated on everything from connecting the event to the dangers of texting while driving to calls for a ban on texting by pilots in air medical operations.

Absent from the discussion, however, is a larger issue that’s well recognized by helicopter industry safety organizations, and what should be of great concern for hospital administration and other organizations that contract emergency helicopter services.  The issue has to do with the egregiously high incidence of fatal and critical Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) crashes, and resulting personal injuries.

In comparison to virtually every other type of commercial aviation, there is an inordinate rate of accidents within medical helicopter aviation, with the 2010 NTSB data proof in point.

Essentially, NTSB segregates aviation operations into hundreds of categories, the largest being all U.S. major domestic air carrier flights.  In 2010, NTSB reported only 14 accidents among major air carrier aviation, none of which were fatal.  By contrast, in 2010 there were 13 HEMS accidents, including seven fatal crashes.

Medical helicopter pilots are heroic and driven individuals who are among the best-trained and highest-skilled pilots in the world and fly what arguably are the most dangerous missions outside of military aviation.  HEMS pilots possess the grit and courage to go forth in dangerous conditions any time of night or day, in icy conditions or great heat, in storms, in densely trafficked urban controlled airspace, and remote uncontrolled airspace.

The most dangerous occupation

Operating without the benefit of formal flight plans with takeoffs and landings in uncontrolled locations ranging from roads to ball fields to the tops of buildings, the challenge is incredible.  Speed is critical.  But it comes with great risk.  In fact, according to a University of Chicago report, crewing a medical helicopter is the most dangerous profession in America.

Clearly it takes a special individual to accept the challenge.  But according to the International Helicopter Safety Team, the same attributes of risk tolerance, confidence and dogged determinism required of a HEMS pilot commonly are the very factors that, when excessive, lead to helicopter pilot error.

But what complicates the issue of haste to meet critical needs is the fact that the majority of HEMS accidents occur not when pilots are ferrying a patient to emergency treatment, but instead take place when pilots are rushing to the scene to pick up a patient, or the transportation of organs.

NTSB data shows that fully 58 percent of the 31 medical flight accidents occurring from 2007 to 2009 took place when the HEMS aircraft were en route to pick up an injured patient, or involved organ transport organs. Only 42 percent of HEMS accidents occurred with patients on board.

Haste and pilot error under harrowing conditions is exacerbated in the case of less experienced HEMS pilots.  Although on the whole HEMS pilots rank among the most experienced and capable pilots in the world, NTSB records indicate that flight hours of HEMS pilots not involved in accidents have logged 19 times as much air time in a particular aircraft as those involved in accidents.

Managing contract helicopter risk

Since 2005, there has been an increasing call for greater safety requirements in HEMS aviation, focusing largely on navigation equipment and flight dispatch and monitoring systems.  We expect to see continued progress in that area.

In the meantime, to reduce the incidence of HEMS crashes as well as to exercise prudent risk management, here are some steps for hospital administrators to consider:

–        Review your HEMS contractor pilot training program, with a preference for programs that not only meet, but exceed, FAA compliance levels;

–        Request documentation of contractor aviation risk assessment programs, and review the specific crew checklist parameters to assess risk level of each flight;

–        Stipulate that pilots have a minimal level of flying hours on the specific type of aircraft to be used in life flight operations;

–        Stipulate that pilots have a certain level of military flying service, or equivalent civilian training;

–        Review pilot histories and encourage condition-specific training that corresponds to local conditions; and

–        To limit claims against your hospital or organization, ensure that your HEMS contracts contain solid indemnity provisions.

Although the tragic human consequences of a fatal medical helicopter crash are clear, there’s less recognition of the massive risk of litigation, which while principally focused on the flight service company easily can become a deep, years-long issue for the contracting hospital organization.

HEMS operators are the first line of defense in one of the greatest challenges of emergency care, operating under diligent training execution and best principles of safe flight as established by the FAA and contractor safety policies.  However, perfection is an aspiration, and recognizing the record of accidents, hospital organizations should look beyond smart phone bans to limit the occurrence and risk of medical helicopter accidents.