In Felicia Andrina George (Administratrix of the Estate of Hughes Williams, Deceased) v Eagle Air Services Ltd [2009] UKPC 21 the administratrix of the estate sought compensation for the death of her husband in an air crash.

Mr Williams, a mechanic working for Eagle Air Services, was killed when one of its aircraft crashed. Mr Williams’ common law wife, Ms George, claimed that he was travelling on the aircraft in the course of his employment and died as a result of the pilot’s negligence. It was Eagle Air Services’ case that as the aircraft had been serviced by Mr Williams it was therefore airworthy; that Mr Williams was on the aircraft outside the scope of his employment; and that Eagle Air Services had never authorised the pilot to mishandle the aircraft. Eagle Air Services simply denied the allegations of negligence and advanced no positive explanation of the crash.

The Privy Council considered the issue raised in light of the maxim res ipsa loqitur, meaning the thing speaks for itself, because of the respondent’s lack of a positive explanation for the crash. The application of the maxim is potentially of great importance, where the Warsaw Convention is not thought to apply, owing to the difficulty of discharging the burden of proof in aviation cases. As such the Privy Council applied the maxim and, therefore, found that because Eagle Air Services never suggested or attempted to suggest any explanation for the accident, or any reason that prevented them giving an explanation, they had failed to displace the inference of negligence, which in the circumstances results from the crash itself. On that basis Ms George’s claim should have succeeded.

Finally, the Privy Council determined that Eagle Air Services’ contention that Mr Williams was a “joy-rider” was ill-conceived. Even supposing Mr Williams was a “joy-rider”, the plane was being piloted on Eagle Air Services’ business and therefore the pilot owed a duty of care to Mr Williams similar to that owed to any other passenger on board. The Privy Council stood over for further consideration quantum and the forum for its determination.