A savvy pilot saved at least 155 lives when he guided a disabled US Airways jet to a relatively gentle landing in the Hudson River last week. He also may have protected his airline from the rash of lawsuits that usually follows a plane crash.
Legal experts say that because of its happy outcome, Flight 1549 has the potential to be among the least litigious airline crashes in recent memory.
“You may be looking at the rarest case where the accident is just an act of God,” said Justin Green, an attorney with the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, which has extensive experience investigating aviation accidents.
Certainly, the blame game that normally accompanies air disasters has yet to turn up a villain in the Jan. 15 splash-landing.
All 155 passengers and crew members aboard the plane survived, thanks to exceptional flying by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. The rescue of the downed passengers, who stood on the floating plane’s wings, went off without a hitch. Injuries were relatively minor.
The investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing, but all indications are that the plane’s two engines were knocked out by a collision with a flock of large birds — a freak accident that some pilots and other experts have said might have been unavoidable.
Still, there may yet be room for victims upset by the experience to find grounds for a lawsuit, lawyers said, especially if further investigation reveals catastrophic engine failure or that the bird strike might have been avoided.
“I fundamentally do not believe in a pure act of God air crash,” said David Rapoport, a Chicago attorney with extensive experience in airline disaster litigation. “I have never found one yet … and when all the data is all in here, my suspicion is that this won’t be one, either.”
One possible area of litigation could be the effectiveness of programs aimed at driving birds away from LaGuardia Airport, where the flight originated.
Bird activity is a well-known hazard at LaGuardia, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs area airports, has implemented a wide array of measures aimed at driving away waterfowl, especially geese.
Green and other lawyers, however, noted that preliminary information seemed to indicate the collision took place miles from the Queens airport _ 3,000 feet over the Bronx, airspace where the Port Authority has little or no ability to control bird activity.
Another question revolves around the possibility that a mechanical defect may have contributed to the simultaneous failures of both the jet’s engines.
“If, indeed, there was some other reason why one of the two engines failed, other than birds, you could have grounds for a suit,” said Mary Schiavo, an aviation lawyer and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The National Safety Transportation Board has not yet begun its analysis of the engines. One of the engines was located at the bottom of the Hudson River on Wednesday, and the other was still attached to the rest of the plane, which was taken by barge to a Jersey City, N.J., marina over the weekend for inspection.
With just days lapsed since the crash, it’s impossible to measure how much legal activity it may someday generate.
Federal law, in fact, bars lawyers from soliciting business from air crash victims in the first 45 days after an incident.
New York state’s bar association sent lawyers to the hotel where some of the crash victims gathered last week, but they weren’t looking to pick up business; they were there predominantly to shoo away any ambulance chasers who turned up.
US Airways has already taken some steps to keep passengers happy, including cutting each one a check for $5,000 to cover their missing luggage.
The airline did not immediately respond to requests for comment on what other arrangements it might be making to compensate victims.
“I do think there will be payments to the people involved,” Rapoport said. “The airline’s insurers are probably willing to pay everybody something.”
But he and other lawyers also noted that Sullenberger’s successful water landing changed the case’s legal landscape dramatically.
“The difference between this being a case where you have half the plane dead and the other with serious injuries and everyone suing over post-traumatic stress disorder is the way the pilot performed,” Green said.
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