Relatives Of Crash Victims Face A Strict Statute On Filing Suits
Posted January 10, 2003 6:51 a.m. EST
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A North Carolina product liability law could eliminate damage awards for victims' families if Wednesday's plane crash was caused by a defective part.
The state's "statute of repose," among the nation's most strict, terminates manufacturers' liability six years and a day from the moment their product is purchased or "enters the stream of commerce."
In contrast, South Carolina and some other states have no such limits, while still others set it at 18 years.
The law also requires plaintiffs to prove that a defective product caused an accident and that the manufacturer was negligent when it manufactured or designed it.
"The consumers of North Carolina have less protection from dangerous and defective products than any people in the country," said Dick Taylor, chief executive officer of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, which has been trying to repeal the statute for years.
Other attorneys note that manufacturers should not be expected to pay for damages indefinitely.
The Beechcraft 1900 that crashed, killing 21 Wednesday, was built and registered in 1996, which means victims' survivors would be unable to recover any damages caused by original parts of that aircraft.
However, investigators of US Airways Express Flight 5481 were focusing Thursday on equipment that recently had been replaced or serviced. Once a part is replaced, North Carolina's six-year statue of limitations restarts. If damage was caused by faulty maintenance, the statute does not apply.
If pilot error caused Wednesday's crash, shifting liability cases out of North Carolina could be difficult because both the accident and the cause would have occurred in the state.
Sorting what laws apply to Flight 5481 could be arduous because the aircraft was serviced in West Virginia on Monday and its parts could have been manufactured virtually anywhere in the world.
Aviation attorney Tony Mineo said he has succeeded in dissuading out-of-state judges from applying North Carolina law. However, his law partner, who teaches aviation law at Duke University, has not.
"And that's not because I'm good or he's bad," said Mineo of Mineo & Crouse of Raleigh. "It does not depend on who is arguing it. It depends on the day and the temperature of the courtroom."
Conceivably, survivors of victims sitting next to each other could try their cases in different states and end up with different results, attorneys said.