Private Planes Pose a Significant Risk for Doctors

March 10, 2015

Harrison Ford's airplane crash is another unfortunate event that can be used as a teachable moment for physicians and their financial future.

Harrison Ford's recent unfortunate crash in one of his private airplanes highlights the reason that so many lawyers privately refer to small private planes (so popular with physicians) as "doctor killers." Ford, an unusually well experienced private pilot who owns a small fleet of planes, had engine issues in one of his vintage planes while flying solo, and had to make an emergency crash landing on a golf course in a heavily populated area. While the news coverage has focused heavily on his injuries, the plane, and his experience, as an asset protection attorney I was immediately struck by how lucky he was both to have survived, and to have done so with no collateral death, injuries, or major property damage on the ground.

According to a recent article on this issue by the Maridon Law Firm, a Nevada aviation law firm, there are a variety of scenarios that link owners and operators to liability:

"Owner-pilots who do not have a deep pocket employer are at greater risk for individual liability exposure. In many accidents, there is not enough insurance to cover the various individuals and businesses who may have some responsibility for the crash. In those cases, the plaintiff's attorney may try to recover money from anyone and everyone involved because adequate compensation is not available from those who may be primarily at fault."

Flying small planes continues to be statistically dangerous despite the fact that commercial aviation accidents are becoming increasingly rare. There have been a variety of well-publicized private-plane crashes in recent news that have taken the lives of pilots, their passengers, and even people on the ground. General aviation accidents, as non-commercial, private-plane accidents are referred to, average about 1,500 a year and produce about 500 fatalities on an annual basis. With these risks in mind, I'd like to address several specific issues with every client who owns or flies private planes:

1. The importance of having an estate plan  and adequate life insurance coverage in place if the unimaginable happens. This should include a fully funded succession plan and a buy-sell agreement for practice partners and owners.

2. Having a proactive legal strategy and the right legal tools in place (i.e., an asset protection plan) that helps manage and protect your family's assets, and segregates them from all your personal and professional risks, not just your medical malpractice exposure.

3. Managing the risk of the plane itself. This means specialty aviation liability insurance in the seven figure range as a minimum (for both bodily injury and property damage), plus an "umbrella" policy.

4. Training, maintenance, and other technical and compliance issues being managed by professionals.

5. Serious consideration of how the plane is owned or leased - i.e. through a corporate entity like an LLC and not through your medical practice or an entity that has other significant assets or income that would be needlessly jeopardized by lumping them in together.

Remember that you have liability in many cases as an owner, operator, or both. Your negligence as a pilot or as the owner or lessor primarily responsible for maintenance is always going to be present. If your taste in airplanes runs to antiques, like Harrison Ford’s, remember that manufacturers have little if any liability for mechanical issues on aircraft more than 18 years old, so the risk is solely yours.

While none of these strategies on their own can guarantee that any pilot will avoid exposure, the layers of risk management combine to provide a reasonable level of protection that every pilot should consider an inextricable cost of flying a private aircraft.