Virginia District Court Finds Pilot Cannot Be Held Liable for Negligence Based Solely on his Status as Pilot in Command of the Aircraft at the Time of the Injury

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In Phillips v. Delta Air Lines, et al., a passenger filed suit against the airline, pilot and first officer, seeking to hold the pilot liable for negligence and gross negligence for her fall on airstairs while disembarking the aircraft.

Upon the flight’s arrival, the pilot and first officer required the passengers to deplane using airstairs. Prior to exiting, the plaintiff informed the pilot and first officer that, due to her medical issues, she would not be able to get down the airstairs with her carry-on bag and purse. As the plaintiff descended the airstairs with her purse, she slipped and fell.

According to plaintiff, the pilot was directly liable for her injuries because as the pilot in charge of a common carrier he owned her “the highest degree of care for her safety” and breached this duty by failing to provide a safe means for disembarking. Further, the pilot should have known that plaintiff’s attempt to deplane via airstairs would present a substantial risk to her safety.

The pilot argued the plaintiff’s theory of liability sought to hold him liable solely because of his status as the pilot in command of the flight and the complaint was devoid of any factual allegations to establish his specific negligence or that he could have foreseen the risk of danger posed by having her use the airstairs.

The Court agreed with the pilot and dismissed plaintiff’s claims holding that while the pilot may have been responsible for the operation of the aircraft and safety of the passengers, his position as pilot did not make him “an absolute insurer of each passenger’s personal safety” under Virginia law. Per the Court, “neither a pilot in command nor any other common carrier by air is strictly liable for all unsafe conditions or defects that might arise during or after a flight. Instead, common carriers will only be held liable if the cause of the injury was within their control and foreseeable.” Plaintiff’s complaint did not plausibly allege the pilot knew, or should have known, that her use of the airstairs would pose a substantial risk of harm. Therefore, the pilot could not be held directly liable for negligence or gross negligence based solely on his status as pilot in command of the aircraft. Phillips v. Delta Air Lines, et al., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156278 (W.D. Va. Aug. 18, 2021)

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