Tragic Wrongful Death Case Arising Our of Plane Crash Correctly Decided

A man with a student pilot’s license crashed into a home, killing himself and his minor daughter.  The deceased child’s mother brought suit against the local aviation board and others for permitting him to take off in the plane despite the absence of a pilot’s license, seeking damages for the death of her daughter.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, saying that the father had intentionally crashed the plane into his mother-in-law’s house with the intent to kill his daughter and himself.  The father and his wife were in the process of a divorce, and the father was upset that his wife was dating another man.  Among other damning facts, the evidence showed that

Eric [the father] attempted to  contact Beth [the mother] on her cell phone, and he made angry and threatening statements when he reached Beth on the third attempt.  At some point during the conversation, Eric told Beth that she would never see Emily again. Just before the plane  crashed into Pace’s house, two bystanders witnessed the airplane abruptly angle downward and throttle its engines toward the ground, without taking the normal steps to prepare for landing, such as deploying flaps, reducing speed, and shallowing descent.    Eric  crashed the airplane into the house shortly thereafter.   As noted above, [his mother-in-law’s] residence  was one of 18,500 houses in  Lawrence County.  [Citations omitted.]
The trial court held, inter alia, that the father’s conduct was a superseding cause that broke the causative link between any alleged negligence of the defendants and the death of his daughter.  The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.
In my opinion, the same result would have been reached if this claim had been brought under Tennessee law.  As mentioned above, there was a substantial amount of evidence that the plane crash was an intentional act.  While not every intentional act breaks the chain of causation under Tennessee law, I believe our courts would hold that the chain broken in this case because the father’s act of intentionally crashing the plane would be deemed to be an unforeseeable consequence of the alleged breach of duty.  A negligent plane crash would be a different story.
What about the 9-11 plane crash, you might ask?  Didn’t that make intentional crashes by small plane pilots foreseeable?  If I had to guess, that is what the plaintiff was counting on.  The problem with this argument  is the facts:
Eric was not  some  unknown, unauthorized person who gained access to the airplane in question on the date of the incident.  To the contrary, Eric was known to those who were operating the airport, including Jacobs, the airport employee, who  gave the  airplane’s  keys to Eric on the  date of the incident because he had a scheduled flying lesson on the airport calendar.  Jacobs did not think that Eric was acting strangely  when he saw him at the airport that day, and there was nothing out of the ordinary about a student pilot  obtaining the  keys to an airplane and taxiing it out to the runway  before a scheduled  flying lesson.   None of the employees saw Emily on the day of the flight and Eric gave no indication to anyone that he was taking a passenger with him.  [Citation omitted.]
These are tough facts for the plaintiff.   If Eric had been a stranger to the airport, the outcome might had been different.  Had Eric been acting strangely, the outcome might had been different.  And, as I said above, had the plane been crashed negligently, the outcome might have been different.  But these facts (and more set out in the opinion) make this a very tough case.
The case is Johnson v. Jacobs,  No.  47A01-1102-CT-3 (IN. Ct. App. Oct. 22, 2011).

Contact Information