Liability in Instruction

I am not a lawyer. The following information is from lawyer friends, legal articles and rulings. This is a broad subject and there are undoubtedly other aspects and opinions to the issue. The "message" is the importance for instructors to fulfill all legal and moral obligations to their students.

What is the liability of a flight instructor, fixed base operator, or flying club? How does one protect themselves from liability?

One area of law falls within the general classification of "torts." Broadly speaking, a tort is a civil wrong for which the court will provide a remedy in the form of action for damages. Within the law of torts, there is the tort of negligence. It is the most common tort involved in flight training.

Under the tort of negligence, the law imposes on each person a duty requiring them to exercise "due care" for the protection of others against reasonable risks. This tort is the reason we shovel the snow from our sidewalks, post caution signs or those bright orange pylons around hazards.

If a person fails to conform to this standard of due care, the person is deemed to be negligent. If that negligence causes damage, he or she is liable to the damaged party.

The law imposes a higher standard of care to some persons, such as flight instructors, than it does to a lay person.

Suppose you ask a friend to teach you to drive a car. After obtaining your license, you have an accident because your friend never told you to signal before turning. The courts would probably find your friend not guilty.

Suppose a professional driving instructor taught you. The court would most likely impute the tort of negligence in this case and could find the instructor guilty of negligence.

Simply stated, an instructor owes a duty of due care, higher than the standard of a private person, and further, the instructor's negligence can be imputed to the FBO, flying school, club, or even the officers and supervisors of that instructor.

There are many court case examples. A power flight instructor and student were told to hold while a large jet took off. Shortly after the jet took off, the tower gave a wake turbulence warning and issued a clearance to takeoff. The instructor and student took off immediately. After a normal takeoff, the plane entered a steep bank angle and crashed killing both the student and instructor.

The student's widow sued the United States government and the instructor's FBO under the Federal Tort Claims Act. She claimed the control tower operators were negligent in giving a clearance to take off too early. Both parties were found negligent.

Concerning the FBO, the court stated the FBO owed the student a duty of care equal to the highest duty a commercial airline owes its passengers. The court reasoned since the instructor failed to wait for the wake turbulence to dissipate, the FBO had not properly made him aware of the problem. The court noted the student had only a few hours of flight instruction and the flight instructor was in charge of the aircraft.

The court said it might have been different if the FBO could have proved the student was instructed in the dangers of wake turbulence. How could the FBO prove the student was taught about the hazards of wake turbulence? A simple logbook endorsement might have helped.

In another case, a student pilot crashed and died while on a solo flight. The cause of the accident was never established. The court found the school not guilty of any negligence, finding specifically the student was ready for solo cross-country flying. How was this determined? Through the school's flight raining syllabus, instructor's lesson plans, and the student's flight training records.

How should an FBO, club or instructor protect themselves? With liability awards running into millions of dollars, insurance policies are probably too expensive.

The most important fact is the same laws that can find you guilty are the same laws that will protect you.

Federal Aviation Regulations, Aviation Instructor's Handbook, and FAA Flight Training Handbook tell us what we are required to teach, and how to teach it. The Practical Test Standards give the knowledge and standards to which a license candidate must perform.

As long as an instructor fulfills these requirements, the law will protect that instructor, FBO or club. However there must be proof the requirements were fulfilled.

How do we prove we fulfilled the requirements?

1. Log book entries.

2. School flight training syllabus.

3. Instructor lesson plans.

4. Written test results.

5. Other records.

For your own protection, you must keep records. If you are the owner or operator of a flight school, or an officer of a club, you have a legal obligation to ensure all flight training is to the standards established by the law. And, written records must be kept as proof.

There is a demonstrable, lack of knowledge and skills of many glider pilots. Human nature allows people to seek the easy way when obtaining new skills. If sub-standard flight training is offered, it is human nature for many people to accept this sub-standard training. If sub-standard flight-testing is offered, it is human nature to accept that testing.

We all know flight instructors who allow people to solo with minimum training. We all know the flight examiner who gives "easy" flight tests.

Those instructors and examiners show a weakness of human nature by presenting substandard instruction and testing. In many cases, these individuals believe they are doing the student a "favor" by being easy. The individuals who seek out the renegade flight instructor and examiner will remain in the high-risk category.

Mature individuals take great pride in accomplishing a difficult task to a high standard. Learning to fly is a never-ending learning experience. For most of us, this is one of the major attractions to the sport.

The thorough flight instructor, who teaches to the intended standard, will gain the respect of all mature individuals. Being thorough does not mean being difficult or over-demanding. Knowing you are presenting complete flight training resulting in safe pilots is very satisfying.