AINsight: How To Shield Bizjet Owners from Virus Claims

 - May 15, 2020, 12:02 PM

The sudden onslaught of the contagious and deadly Covid-19 pandemic delivered a severe blow to business aviation’s global flight activity and paused (but did not derail) preowned business jet retail sale and lease transactions. The pandemic has already changed so much in our lives that, for now, no one can envision what a “new normal” will look like for business aviation.

Regardless of what happens, today, as governments ease shelter at home restrictions, business aircraft owners and lessees, along with their managers and Part 135 operators (together, owners), face an imperative to protect anyone from Covid-19 who might come in physical contact with, or travel on, the operator’s business aircraft.

These people include owners and their families, other passengers, crew, independent contractors, employees, and ground support personnel (together, affected individuals). The imperative applies both to Part 91 and 135 operations. If owners do not meet this obligation head-on, it seems inevitable that affected individuals will make negligence claims against owners for exposure to, and illness or death from, Covid-19.

Three Ways To Mitigate Risk of Covid-19-related Claims

Owners should use this period of slower flight and market activity to take the following three actions that might limit the chances for affected individuals to contract Covid-19 and blunt any incentive to make damage claims against owners for their alleged negligence:

First, develop comprehensive business aircraft protocols for each business aircraft to create a healthy and safe environment inside of, and close to, the aircraft.

Second, request Covid-19 waivers and indemnities from affected individuals to mitigate the risk of Covid-19-related liability claims based on negligence or other legal theories.

Finally, confirm whether the owner carries, or the owner can buy, liability insurance coverage that will respond to such liability claims.

Covid-19 Negligence Explained

As a general legal principle, business aircraft owners may be negligent and liable for money damages if the owner breaches its duty of reasonable care to maintain a safe and healthy environment for affected individuals inside of, or close to, their aircraft.

Broadly speaking, the duty occurs because an owner can reasonably foresee that Covid-19 might live in and on business aircraft, be transmitted inside or close to the aircraft by one person to another, or from personal items such as luggage to an affected individual. If negligence is proven, a judge or jury can then award significant money damages in favor of the affected individual or his/her estate.

Importantly, the affected individual who contracts Covid-19 must prove that the breach of the owner’s duty of reasonable care is the “proximate cause” of the Covid-19 illness or death. That is, the affected individual must provide evidence of an almost indisputable connection between his or her Covid-19 condition and the exposure to Covid-19 inside of, or close to, the business aircraft.

As such, causation is likely to be the most difficult element to prove, especially given the challenges in tracing from the affected individual to the aircraft environment as the only possible source of the affected individual’s infection. However, no owner should rely on the difficulty of proving causation as an excuse to ignore safeguards and fail to develop a high-quality aircraft protocol.

Developing a Covid-19 Aircraft Protocol

As noted above, owners can, and immediately should, develop and enforce a comprehensive protocol designed to protect any affected individual who is inside of, or might come in physical contact with, a business aircraft, its cargo, and any other affected individual. A protocol, in this context, refers to written standards, practices, and behaviors established by owners to ensure that the environment inside of, and close to, their business aircraft is free of the Covid-19 infection.

Although important, cleaning and disinfecting an aircraft by itself does not constitute an aircraft protocol. Owners should include many other elements in a protocol such as screening each affected individual, safely bag or wrap potentially infected luggage, test passengers for Covid-19 before the flight, and provide each passenger with personal hygiene supplies and masks that must be used inside the aircraft.

To help them meticulously design and write, as well as implement and update, a Covid-19 health and safety protocol, owners should hire appropriate medical, cleaning, and safety experts to contribute relevant parts of, and comment on, the entire protocol. Some managers and Part 135 operators have already taken steps to create all or part of a protocol or a rough equivalent, which is positive.

Further, owners should conduct periodic audits to confirm strict compliance with the protocols. They should also retain records on, and immediately rectify any shortfalls from, the protocol implementation such as recording dates and times of disinfecting in and around an aircraft. These steps might entail some additional effort, but they should help mount a good defense to negligence claims.

In all situations, owners and affected individuals should limit travel with operators that have not developed and comply with a protocol on every flight. After all, only one mistake or negligent act or omission can lead to tragic consequences involving Covid-19.

Covid-19 Resources To Create a Protocol

In writing and updating the protocols, owners, experts, and their lawyers should study pertinent information from, among others, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, FAA, EBAA, and NATA. Notably, NBAA recently published a comprehensive resource that owners can use as the foundation of a quality aircraft protocol.

Aircraft manufacturers should be able and willing to provide consulting services and aircraft products, including fresh air intake and filtering systems, to mitigate safety risks and negligence claims.

Liability Insurance Coverage To Minimize Payouts from Covid-19 Claims

Liability insurance might cover Covid-19 negligence claims relating to business aircraft. Owners and their aviation insurance experts or lawyers should examine the wording in their liability insurance policies to determine whether any coverage exists against these claims. Some, but not all policies, contain explicit exclusions for viruses, which means Covid-19 claims might not be covered.

Prospects to buy such insurance now are dismal, but large accounts might have a shot. If there is potential coverage, the insurer might have a “duty to defend” the insured, at the insurer’s expense, and therefore engage counsel to defend the insured against the Covid-19 claims.

Waivers and Indemnities To Limit Impact of Covid-19 Claims

Each owner should ask any affected individual, before a flight, for a written, signed waiver of claims for Covid-19 illness or death. Separately, managers and Part 135 operators might consider asking for waivers and indemnities from owners for damages to furniture and hard surfaces in the aircraft allegedly caused by disinfecting chemicals used in or on the aircraft to rid the areas of Covid-19. Courts generally enforce properly drafted waivers and indemnities, but applicable laws might alter this outcome.

Conclusion

Covid-19 affects all of us in different ways. In business aviation, it seems urgent that, as governments lift stay-at-home restrictions, owners develop and implement comprehensive Covid-19 health and safety protocols for their business aircraft, secure waivers, and indemnities and maintain appropriate liability insurance.

Properly structured, a protocol can protect the lives of business aircraft owners and their families, crews, independent contractors, employees, and ground support personnel from illness and death caused by Covid-19. Protocols can boost confidence in traveling by business aircraft and mitigate the risk of complex, expensive, and lengthy liability lawsuits against the business aircraft owners, managers, and Part 135 operators.

The right choice seems obvious, but the end of this healthcare crisis and recovery of business aviation remains far from certain.

Author note: “This blog is not intended to create or constitute, nor does it create or constitute, an attorney-client or any other legal relationship. No statement in this communication constitutes legal advice nor should any communication herein be construed, relied upon, or interpreted as legal advice. This communication is for general information purposes only regarding recent legal developments of interest, and is not a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included herein without seeking appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances affecting that reader.”