Darren Smith, Flight Instructor
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CFI Liability

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most From Your Flight Training, December 2005

CFI Navigation:  General Info CFI Certificate | CFI Ground School SyllabusTactics for the Professional CFI | Technical Presentations | Sample Budget while in Training | Things Flight Instructors Worry About | CFI Liability | What it takes to become a CFI | Advice to the New CFI | Learning Modality

Disclaimer:  I am not a lawyer nor am I qualified to give professional legal advice.  This article is written for the purposes of provide professional advice to flight instructors and should not be construed as legal advice. 

I was recently hanging out with one of my flight instructor pals and discussing student achievement.  Actually we were talking about stupid student tricks.  The conversation went towards "the most dangerous student award" and then finally the striking realization of how much liability occurs when we train, endorse, sign-off, check, and examine students.  As flight instructors know that the student comes to us and shows us all of his weaknesses and hopefully we send them forward in the world with ways to build on their new skills.  Unfortunately and more frequently, they are as good as they will ever get at the moment you "graduate" them from your training.

I think that every flight instructor trains students to the best of their ability.  Ability... there's an interesting word we'll explore later.  Anyway, we seek to teach the very best practices in the art of flying and incorporate safety practices in everything we do.  As a result, we produce some of the best aviators in the world.  Anyone who has jumpseated with a 3rd world airline or toured their training academies will definitely agree.

One of the worst feelings in the world is to read a familiar name in the news paper or watch live video of an aircraft accident in the making.  Even worse is the realization that this person was one of our students.  We are instantly filled with doubt and insecurity.  The most common question, "Did I do everything possible to teach this individual how to prevent such an accident?"  What happens when we do everything we can and something happens to one of our current or former students?  Does the prospect of a phone call from an FAA inspector thrill you?  Just wait, it gets better.  How would you feel about a certified letter from an attorney indicating that you've become a defendant?  What I've noticed in some of the cases that I have provided expert witness consulting, flight instructors are directly attacked in areas of competence and ability.

There's that word again.  Ability.  Everyone around the flight instructor holds him to a higher standard than the average pilot.  This includes the FAA, lawyers, judges & courts, juries, pilot examiners, as well as your pilot-students.  More than providing the best possible training to your students, we have a duty to our students (and others listed above).  When we fail in that duty, we are judged to be negligent. If that negligence causes damage, we would be liable to the damaged party.  The damaged party not only includes the pilot-student but his heirs such as the widow and children. 

When we are given the privilege of working with another person, we have more than a duty; we have an obligation to lift that individual out of complacency, bad decision-making skills, unsafe habits, and inadequate flying technique.  Those that truly understand this obligation realize the weight of this burden and take it seriously.  Any flight training you provide places you on the hook for properly supervising the flight to be undertaken.  It also calls you to act in the most professional, competent manner possible.  Those who are scanning the HOBBS meter instead of student performance and safety are the most dangerous instructors among us.  If your motivation is money, you're in the wrong profession.  You'll never get rich in aviation, instead you'll fail to meet the standards of due care professionals are required to give.

When flight instructors fail in their duty, it becomes quickly evident in the students they produce.  When a pilot-student violates the safe standards of flying or becomes involved in an incident, the FAA is mandated to figure out what part of the system broke.  Eventually they will get back to that CFI who didn't do his job.  The CFI is the decision-maker if a student is proficient to be flying the IFR system, advancing to new rating, or first solo.  He is the one who carries the liability for the BFR, IPC, endorsement issued or the checkride signoff given. 

What are the minimum standards flight instructors are held to?  The guidance is given to all of us by the FAR/AIM, FAA Advisory Circulars, and the PTS.  The FAA is relies upon flight instructors as gatekeepers in the process that certifies & qualifies pilots.

What are the ways you'll protect yourself from liability as a professional flight instructor? 
  1. Purchasing professional liability insurance through NAFI,
  2. Using a flight training syllabus, lesson plans,
  3. Student training records,
  4. Adopt a "pledge to students"
  5. Proper & complete logbook entries,
  6. Written test results and pre-solo exam PRIOR to solo,
  7. Flight progress notes, and
  8. Improving your ability. 
There's that word again... ability.  Ways to increase your ability include seeking and qualifying as a Master Instructor through NAFI, seeking additional ratings, having an annual proficiency check done by the local pilot examiner, and taking additional flight training with a senior instructor.  Do you perform to the standards given to us in the FAR/AIM, FAA Advisory Circulars, and the PTS?

Since you perform to the highest standards, you'll charge appropriate rates for your services.  You get what you pay for in this world, so charge students appropriately for the professional services you provide.  While flight instruction might be a temporary stepping stone in an aviation career, nothing can remove you from aviation quicker than a lawsuit on behalf of a former pilot-student claiming negligence. 

There are folks out there in our system that provides the "easy road" to pilot certification.  The guilty parties include flight instructors, examiners, as well as the pilot-student themselves.  We all know the Santa Claus examiner in the local area which will be an easy pass for our student.  While we can't control how a DPE will administer a flight test, we can control the quality and thoroughness of our flight training. 

On the other hand, haven't we all met pilots who seemed destined to kill themselves through aviation and had no business being in the cockpit?  Now if it was one of our students, we have a duty to train to the highest professional standard and then terminate students who are consistently unsafe, dangerous, or unfit to be pilots. There are times when a student and an instructor are just not a good match.  When a conflict arises, the resolution says a lot about both the instructor as well as the student.  If you're ever in that position, consider having an open discussion with your student about your concerns.  If you aren't the right instructor for the student, be upfront about it and offer to make a referral.  Your students must understand this process, accept it, and respect it.  It comes down to a choice whether they can cooperate and adapt to the process or find another instructor.  A student who is ready to learn, who is ready to listen, exhibits an attitude of being:
  • a partner in learning, a self driven professional who craves knowledge about aviation. 
  • precise in their flying, a passion for doing things correctly goes beyond using the checklist, its a way of life. 
  • safe, never taking unnecessary risks, and properly managing the risks of flight. 
  • prepared as a student, for each lesson, but even more important, a prepared pilot who plans each flight and seeks to know "all available information." 
  • the ultimate judge of their own performance, accepting responsibility for their setbacks and asking for help to improve their skills while not being too self-critical.

You May Also Be Interested in Reading...

IFR Risk Management
Things Your Flight Instructor Wish You Knew - or Helicopter
15 Things Pilots Must Learn - or Helicopter
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline

Things Your Flight Instructor Worries About
Aviation Safety Programs
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
Personal Minimums Checklist(download)
Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making - Hazardous Attitudes
Information on the FAA Pilot Proficiency Program "Wings"
FAA Pilot Education Pamphlet Reprints
FAA Publications
Preventing Your Aircraft from Coming Apart in Flight
Characteristics of Successful Pilots
Ten Commandments for Safe Flight
What's Killing Pilots - What to do to save your life
Bending Metal - the most common causes of non-fatal accidents
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
Making Safe Choices

What You Said...

Date: Thursday, 11 November, 2010, 8:44 AM        From: Stephen B         Subject: Re a CFI giving a BFR: 
Darren- What is your understanding of the liability of a CFI who signs off a BFR?  Is he on the hook for any mishap of the pilot for the next 24 months?  What kind of liability insurance would cover this?

Darren's Response:  Oh yeah... case law is not on the side of the CFI.  The cases I'm aware of were related to the death of the pilot and the widow going after everyone involved.  AOPA/NAFI both have CFI insurance with NAFI slightly better.

The FAA is starting to look closer at CFIs who are involved with pilots who are troublesome.  About 5 years ago, I got a call from the local FSDO regarding a pilot who was not multi-qualified but was out flying his personal twin around and smashed it into a runway gear up.  I discontinued lessons with him because he wouldn't buy a checklist for his aircraft.  When the FAA called, they didn't tell me the purpose of their enquiry until I told them this little detail.  Suddenly they weren't so interested in me anymore.  They pulled the pilot's license forever, something about endangering the public.

I clearly came out on the good side of that one.  But what if it went the other way?

Anyway, buy the insurance, its good piece of mind.  You never know when a widow is going to come looking for you.  Always document clearly what you did on the lesson in the pilot's logbook... even if it takes 2 lines. There's no crime in that, and it will protect you in the long run. Thanks for your email, hope that helps.

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