It is a tragedy to lose a loved one in an accident. While no amount of money will bring that person back, the money won in a wrongful death lawsuit can help to cover some of the costs that arise. Punitive damages also give victims' families some vindication that the party at fault has been punished.
A U.S. District Judge has recently decided that the families of victims who died in a plane crash in Buffalo, New York, in 2009 can ask for unlimited punitive damages from the Tennessee airline that operated the plane. The judge decided that New York law applied, which had an unlimited punitive damage cap, rather than Virginia law, which is where the airline was previously located.
The plane crashed into a man's home in Buffalo in February 2009. The plane was traveling from Newark to Buffalo and crashed after the pilot let the plane stall. There were 49 people on the plane, all of whom died. In addition, the homeowner was also killed in the accident. Thus far, 40 lawsuits have been filed and approximately 12 have settled out-of-court. Any cases that are proceeding to trial will do so in March 2012.
The airline claimed that it had interviewed the pilot prior to the flight. The pilot also underwent testing at a New York airport. Despite the testing, victims' families are claiming that the pilot operated the plane recklessly. They argue that because the pilot was deficient and "lacked the fundamental knowledge and ability to safely operate" the plane, it was appropriate to seek punitive damages.
The families see this as a big win. The airline is being held responsible outside of the state in which it is headquartered. This provides the families with better access to more favorable courts.
The families have run into one problem, however. The judge also decided that federal standards applied to lawsuits on airplane safety. The courts will be using the Federal Aviation Act, rather than New York or Virginia law, to determine whether the airline is liable.