Plane Crashes And The Law
What are the legal rights of families who lose loved ones in plane crashes overseas? It’s a sad question that has unfortunately come up several times in recent years, the latest with the crash of the Germanwings plane in France.
Victoria Gallanders, travel law expert at Stacks Law Firm, says rights following the death of passengers during international carriage by plane are governed by international conventions.
“Which convention applies depends on the country of departure and destination of the ticket – not the travel leg that the death happened on, but the ticket in its entirety. For the Germanwings crash, most if not all passengers would be covered by the Montreal Convention of 1999.”
Dependents of deceased passengers can seek compensation from the airline for funeral expenses and loss of dependency. Ms Gallanders says dependency is a calculation of the financial support and domestic services the deceased would have provided dependents over their lifetime.
“Under Article 21 of the Montreal Convention, Germanwings has to pay up to 100,000 Special Drawing Rights – an international currency worth about $180,000 today – on a strict liability basis. So long as the dependents can prove an economic loss, the airline has to pay regardless of fault or negligence.”
But Ms Gallanders said it is not unusual for loss of dependency claims to go into the millions of dollars. The airline has to pay the additional compensation unless they establish that the death was not due to the negligence, wrongful act or omission of its employees or agents. As the Germanwings co-pilot seems to have deliberately crashed the plane the airline will have to pay out considerable compensation.
There is a two year deadline to settle a claim against the airline or commence court proceedings. Under Article 33 of the Montreal Convention a dependent can take court action in a choice of countries that are signatories – generally the airline’s home base, the country where the ticket was bought, the destination of the ticket and the deceased’s home country.
Some jurisdictions offer more advantageous compensation laws than others. For instance, many US states allow punitive damages. This payout could be possible if it is proved the airline knew about the co-pilot’s mental condition and did nothing. UK courts allows damages for bereavement. This is not possible in NSW. If Germanwings is found guilty of a crime in French criminal proceedings it could also open the door for additional compensation.
Where the victim of a plane crash has no income or no dependents, such as a child, the amount that can be recovered by the person’s family will be less.