Public liability claims can be complex, as there is often debate between several organisations over duty of care and responsibility for the accident. An ongoing case in New South Wales has highlighted the difficulty in apportioning damages for incidents where numerous defendants are involved.
In February 2006, a helicopter carrying three people – including the pilot – exploded after hitting an overhead power line while flying low. Unfortunately, all three men in the vehicle died.
Two of the passengers were council employees who were tasked with surveying weeds at low altitudes. The wife of one of the men launched a public liability claim for damages against the council, the helicopter company and the energy firm that owned the power lines.
Who was liable?
Earlier this year, all three organisations were found partly liable for the accident. However, the percentage each had to pay depended on individual culpability.
For example, the electricity provider was deemed to have failed in its duty of care by neglecting to place markers on its power lines, which could have prevented the incident.
However, the council was also negligent because it didn’t perform a proper risk assessment, didn’t inform the helicopter of an appropriate flight descent threshold and neglected to warn the pilot of electricity lines in the area.
The helicopter company was considered liable due to its status as a professional flight operator. Despite this, the pilot was improperly briefed and himself failed to follow principles of good airmanship, including descending to 120 feet, when the council had put in place a 500-feet limit on previous flights.
Apportionment of damages
The judge in the case ruled the energy firm was least liable for the accident, making the company pay 10 per cent of damages. While the lack of markers was an issue, Justice Geoff Bellew argued the incident wouldn’t have occurred if not for the negligence of the council and the helicopter company.
The council’s failure was considerable, he said, particularly the absence of a thorough risk assessment and the assumptions made about descent limits. For these issues, the council will have to pay 20 per cent of compensation.
However, primary culpability was laid at the helicopter company’s feet. Justice Bellew said the firm had the most control and authority over the flight, and should therefore shoulder the majority of the compensation burden. The organisation must therefore pay 70 per cent of damages.