The Court of Cassation recently rendered an important decision regarding manufacturers' liability.(1) The decision concerned the Air Asia Airbus A 320 which crashed in the Java Sea in December 2014, killing all crew and passengers on board.
The Indonesian and French air accident investigators' report indicated that a defect in the rudder travel limit unit (RTLU) had been a contributing factor to the accident. Families and assigns of the victims thus sued the manufacturers of the aircraft and the RTLU (both of which were French companies) in the French courts for provisional damages.
In 2017 the Angers Court of Appeal rejected the claim, arguing that the obligation of both manufacturers to indemnify the claimants was seriously challengeable. The court held that the simple contribution of a component (ie, the failure of the RTLU) to the accident was insufficient to establish the manufacturers' liability, as other factors had also contributed – such as:
- the lack of rigour in the maintenance of the aircraft, which had been the airline's responsibility; and
- the crew's inadequate management of the situation.
The Court of Cassation cancelled the Angers Court of Appeal decision on the grounds that it violated Articles 1245 and 1245-13 of the Civil Code. Article 1245 provides that "the manufacturer is liable for damages caused by a defect of its product, regardless of whether there was a contract between the victim and that manufacturer". Article 1245-13 provides that "the liability of a manufacturer to the victim is not limited by the act of a third party that contributed to the damage". On that basis, the court held that the fact that third parties (ie, the airline's maintenance organisation and crew) had contributed to the crash could in no way limit the liability of the manufacturers of the aircraft and the RTLU.
This decision is notable as it reaffirms – in a tragic case – that, under French law, a manufacturer's liability cannot be limited or excluded on the grounds that another party or some other cause contributed to the damage if the product was defective and caused the damage. This does not mean that other parties (eg, the airline in the case at hand) cannot be held jointly liable for damage if they are (even partially) responsible.
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