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Rare Southwest Engine Failure Prompts Liability Questions


The death of a Southwest Airlines passenger following a midair engine explosion marked the first U.S. commercial airline fatality in nine years, sparking liability questions for the carrier and aircraft and parts manufacturers along with heightened scrutiny of aircraft inspection and maintenance protocols, legal experts say.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are piecing together what triggered an engine on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 to explode and spray shrapnel that punctured a window and killed a passenger who had been partially sucked out of the aircraft window on Tuesday, a tragic incident that industry observers say is so rare and anomalous that they cautioned against a rush to over-regulate.

Widely considered the safest aviation system in the world, the incident on board the New York to Dallas flight that made its emergency landing in Philadelphia abruptly ended the U.S. aviation industry's longest streak of commercial airline flights without a fatality. And it will prompt intense scrutiny of the aircraft inspection and maintenance procedures of Southwest, as well as the makers of the 737 aircraft, The Boeing Co., and the engine, CFM International.

"Aviation is an extraordinary regulated industry — everything from the design, maintenance and manufacturing of a plane to the training of the flight crew," Mark Dombroff, co-leader of LeClairRyan's aviation industry practice, told Law360. "This is an anomaly."

Any potential new regulatory implications from the Southwest incident will rest on what the NTSB ultimately determines likely led to the engine failure. Early findings from the NTSB — which Chairman Robert Sumwalt said is embarking on a "very methodical investigation" of this incident — indicate that metal fatigue caused a hidden crack in a fan blade that broke off midair, causing the engine to explode with such force that it tore off the engine's cowling, the external cover. It's what the industry calls an "uncontained engine failure."

"Again, you're looking at an incredibly anomalous situation where there's metal fatigue in the fan blade that penetrates the engine shroud at exactly the right angle at the right point to go through the window of the fuselage," Dombroff said. "The board's going to look at all of these things."

Read the full article online at Law360 here.

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