Crash reports admissible in civil Proceedings

Posted: 17th March 2014

Trading Estate form the AirThe mother and sister of an ex-Royal Marine who was killed whilst flying in an antique aircraft have convinced the Court of Appeal that they should be permitted to rely on an Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) report in support of their damages claim.

Orlando Rogers was aged 26 when he was killed on 15 May 2011 whilst taking a private flight in a vintage Tiger Moth aircraft. His mother and sister are suing the pilot of the aircraft, Scott Hoyle, claiming that his negligence caused the crash after the plane took off from an airfield in Dorset.

Mr Hoyle denies that he was to blame, and in particular disputes claims that he attempted a 'loop' too close to the ground before going into an unintentional spin. His legal team argues that a technical fault in the aircraft caused the crash, in which he was also gravely injured.

The pilot’s legal team fiercely opposed an AAIB report into the accident being used in evidence against him. The AAIB, part of the Department of Transport, investigates every air accident in British airspace and its report included a statement that the observers on the ground had seen the plane ‘pull into a loop’ about 1,500 feet above ground level before entering a spin from which it did not recover.

Mr Hoyle's lawyers argued unsuccessfully before the High Court that the report would unfairly prejudice his defence. The document, which contained a mixture of factual analysis and expert opinion, was anonymised, so that neither its authors, nor witnesses interviewed, could be identified or cross-examined in court.

The issue was considered of such importance that the Department of Transport and the International Air Transport Association intervened in Mr Hoyle’s appeal against that ruling. It was argued that there was a serious risk that use of AAIB reports in civil proceeding would deter witnesses from assisting accident investigators.

However, the Court ruled that Mr Rogers' loved ones were entitled to submit the report in evidence. Although it was not 'in any sense conclusive' as to the causes of the accident, the report's admission was likely to assist in the 'efficient and speedy resolution' of the family's claim.

Whilst not underestimating the vital work carried out by the AAIB and its significance to air safety in general, the Court concluded that there was 'no good reason why the admissibility of the report, and others like it, should impede or inhibit the inspectors in their work’.

The Court emphasised that nothing in its judgment should be taken to mean that anything in the report was to be treated as in an way conclusive. The burden of proving that Mr Hoyle was negligent still lay firmly on Mr Rogers' family. The ruling, however, means that the judge who eventually considers the case will be able to take the AAIB report into account when reaching his decision.