Under New York law, there can be more than one cause of a motor vehicle accident. This is known as “comparative negligence.” In such cases, a judge or jury must apportion liability between each of the negligent parties, which may include the plaintiff or victims. This requires a determination of what legal duty each party owed, to what extent the party deviated from that duty, and how that deviation measured against the negligent acts of the other parties.
Korean Air Lines Co., Ltd. v. McLean
Of course, the more parties involved in an accident, the more difficult comparative negligence determinations become. Here is a recent example. This case did not involve a typical traffic accident. Instead, it arose from a ground collision at John F. Kennedy International Airport. In June 2009, a Korean Air Lines (KAL) cargo plane was taxiing down a runway when it hit a construction truck.
KAL subsequently sued a number of parties to recover the damages to its aircraft. The defendants included the driver and owner of the truck, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns the airport), and a contractor hired by the Port Authority to oversee security at the airport. The truck defendants then filed a counter-claim against the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages air traffic control at the airport.
U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen tried the case without a jury this past January. On July 13 she issued her findings regarding liability. Although this accident happened at an airport, it is still governed by New York tort law. “Absent a controlling statute,” Judge Chen said, “the rules of law applicable to torts generally govern in a case involving the collision of an airplane and a land vehicle.”
Judge Chen first examined KAL's liability for the accident. She held the flight's first officer “breached his duty to exercise ordinary care and skill in operating the KAL aircraft on the night of the accident.” The first officer observed the truck on the runway and failed to alert the captain in a timely manner.
That said, Judge Chen still held other parties were liable under contributory negligence. She found the Port Authority failed in its “duty to keep live taxiways free from obstructions that might impede the safe passage of aircraft on the taxiway.” The truck was on the runway as part of a Port Authority construction project. It was therefore incumbent upon the Port Authority to manage its contractors appropriately.
But the Port Authority's failure did not let the truck's owner off the hook either. Judge Chen said it had a duty to “ensure the safety of its workers” at the airport and to “immediately remove any safety deficiencies.” This means it was the responsibility of the truck owner, not the driver, to “confirm that taxiways and runways surrounding its work areas were closed before allowing work to proceed.” The driver was liable, however, for failing to illuminate the beacon light on his truck. As the judge observed, “The collision that followed was exactly the sort of event that a beacon light was designed to prevent.”
Finally, neither the Port Authority's security contractor nor the FAA were liable in any way for the accident. The judge ultimately apportioned the majority of the liability (55%) to the Port Authority, with 25% to the truck owner, 10% to the truck driver, and 10% to KAL. This means KAL may ultimately recover 90% of its damages, which will be determined in a separate trial later this year.
Need Help With Contributory Negligence?
While most cases may not involve this many parties, contributory negligence is still an important concept to understand if you are involve in any type of motor vehicle accident. If you need help understanding this or other legal questions, you should consult with an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Contact our offices today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.