A test pilot working for Scaled Composites, partner of Richard Branson's "Virgin Galactic" was killed last week during a test flight of a prototype commercial spacecraft. Michael Alsbury died in an explosion of the aircraft over the Mojave desert on Friday 31 October.
This tragic accident begs the question however, who is to blame? And more importantly for us here at Unlock The Law –will the law hold Richard Branson liable for the damages?
There has been speculation that could not only mark the end of Branson's dream of 'cheap' commercial space travel through Virgin Galactic, but also the end of the great empire he has built due to the cost of the accident.
How would UK Law treat the Virgin Galactic Case?
In the UK, Section 76(2) of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 means that 'strict liability' is imposed where damage is caused to anybody or any property on land by an aircraft while in flight.
Strict liability in this context means that victims on the ground may not have to prove what happened, but only that they suffered material loss, damage, injury or trauma as a result of the accident.
Such strict liability is imposed on the owner or operator of the aircraft – in this case, Virgin Galactic.
Claims can include compensation for physical injuries, loss of earnings and any care and assistance required. Importantly in the Virgin Galactic case, compensation is also recoverable if you have lost a loved one.
Virgin have allegedly began to hint that the accident could be the fault of Scaled Composites, the manufacturer of the rocket. However, this would not be upheld in law due to the operation of strict liability. This means that anyone injured in an aircraft accident that was not their fault is able to bring a claim against the owner/operator of the aircraft.
The law differs slightly in the United States, however a very high duty of care is owed to passengers of an aircraft and those on land. An investigation is currently being carried out by The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United states to discover the true cause of the accident. This investigation will determine who is truly to blame for the accident and who will be held liable to pay compensation to the loved ones of the pilot who was killed and also any others who have suffered injury.
Was Branson to blame?
Whilst the test on Friday was intended to prove wrong all those who said the Branson's commercial space travel idea was dangerous, undoubtedly it was a failure.
Allegedly Branson had been told repeatedly by engineers that the rocket was dangerous and that test flights could be catastrophic. Many senior executives involved in the project had resigned, including the rocket's aerodynamic expert who had been working on the project for more than ten years. He believed that the design changes required by Virgin Galactic were too dangerous.
Branson further committed himself on US television, stating that he and his son would be in space by March – greatly accelerating the process for getting commercial spacecrafts in flight.
This evidence further implies fault on the part of Branson and Virgin Galactic, however Branson has said of those pointing blame at the company:
'I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes its comments,'
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