Tort Liability Theories Emerge After Lufthansa Flight Tragedy

On March 24, 2015, Germanwings’ pilot Andreas Lubitz locked himself into the cockpit of Flight 4U9525 and deliberately crashed the plane into a French Alpine hillside, according to authorities.  As part of his suicide plan, Mr. Lubitz murdered 149 innocent people including three Americans.  It appears that Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Germanwings’ parent company, may be legally responsible to the 149 victims’ families.

At least two tort liability theories are already emerging.

First, did Lufthansa know about Mr. Lubitz’s mental health issues, and what could it have done to prevent this tragedy? Lufthansa has already acknowledged that it knew Mr. Lubitz suffered from depression during his 2009 pilot training, and that his depression was severe enough to require a medical leave of absence.  It is less clear if Lufthansa knew about Mr. Lubitz’s more recent psychiatric treatment. If lawsuits proceed, a key issue will be whether Lufthansa adequately monitored its pilots’ mental health.

Second, why didn’t Lufthansa implement the so-called “rule of two” for aircraft cockpits earlier?  In the United States, Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that two people must be in the cockpit at all times to prevent this very type of incident on flights which travel within the United States.   On March 27, 2015, Lufthansa issued a press release stating that under the new procedure, “two authorized persons must be present in the cockpit at all times during a flight.” Lufthansa’s explanation for its delay in implementing the rule of two will also be a key issue if tort liability lawsuits proceed.

It is sad to think that this tragedy might have been averted if Lufthansa changed its policies earlier. This is not the first time that a pilot crashed a plane and killed passengers in circumstances suspicious for suicide. In 1999, Egypt Air Flight 990 crashed in the waters near Nantucket, Massachusetts killing 217 people.  Hopefully, Lufthansa and its insurers will accept responsibility for Lufthansa’s systems failures and properly compensate the victims of this tragedy.

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