Journal of Air Law and Commerce
Under Allegheny Airlines, the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that a flying school/aircraft owner is engaged in a joint enterprise with its student pilots and is vicariously liable for the student’s negligent acts. This Court and others have developed the principle that the vicarious liability of an aircraft owner for the actions of the pilot is dependent upon the existence of a principal/agent relationship between the owner and pilot. Courts developed this legal fiction to enable recovery by injured parties against the financially responsible principal, rather than effectively denying recovery by forcing personal judgments against the agent. However, many courts have denounced this legal fiction imputing negligence to an aircraft owner.
Because of the dissatisfaction with the inherent incongruities in the legal fictions, Congress and the state legislatures formulated statutory vicarious liability provisions. Yet courts have had difficulty deciding whether these statutes create or imply a civil remedy against the aircraft owner for third parties injured through the negligence of a pilot who does not own the aircraft. The application of statutory vicarious liability in state and federal courts might have foreclosed the joint enterprise and vicarious liability theory in Allegheny had there been consistent interpretations of the statutes. But, like other courts, the Allegheny court also relied on common law, reflecting a distrust of statutory resolution.
The answer to this problem is not redress through bad law, but through strengthening of statutory application. The dynamism needed is best furnished through legislative enactments that can accurately reflect the desires of the public. The solution is not to make the common law unrecognizable, but rather to make use of statutory potential in effecting a sound humanitarian result. The strength of the common law lies in its malleability, not in unrealistic distortion.
Gerald S. Reamey, Allegheny Airlines, Inc. v. United States (Case Note), 41 J. Air L. & Com. 511 (1975).