When a plane crash claims the lives of passengers, are the families of all the passengers compensated in the same way? Generally, the answer is no. It depends in part on the fault behind the crash, but mostly on the nationality of the passengers. The site where the crash occurred is not a factor at all.
The first level of compensation is a minimum liability for each passenger regardless of fault. Carriers in the nearly 100 countries that have signed the 1999 Montreal Convention must pay a minimum value of approximately $170,000 per passenger. In a way, that minimum is almost pointless because the airline must prove it was not negligent to pay that little — a nearly impossible task in practical terms.
Other countries subscribe to the older Warsaw convention (mostly the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Russia). The minimum compensation is only $8,300 per passenger, and the airline must only prove that it took all reasonable steps to pay this low amount. A few countries, such as Taiwan, have not signed either treaty, therefore minimum compensation and liability is a function of national law.
In the end, rarely does anyone receive minimum compensation because of lawsuits. Under the Montreal Convention, victims can sue carriers under the laws of their home countries. Because of that provision, settlements in international crashes produce different compensation levels for victims of different nationalities even though they were on the same flight.
Thanks to the American court system, the average settlement is far higher than it is in most nations. Thus, from the perspective of the airlines, American lives are worth more than others are.
A Time article provided an estimate of the average settlements in different countries (converted to U.S. dollars). The U.S. led the way with an average settlement of $4.5 million. Brazil was a distant second with a $2.5 million average, and Canada, the UK, Spain, France, Australia, and Germany ranged between $1.3 and $1.7 million on average. Settlements in Asian countries tended to be lower, with Malaysia at $600,000, China at $500,000, and Indonesia at $400,000 on average.
The court of jurisdiction will take into account actuarial factors such as the age of the victim, life expectancy, number of dependents left behind, and the earnings potential over the remainder of his or her life. Punitive damages are not allowed under the Montreal Convention, but according to Abram Bohrer, an aviation attorney with the New York firm Bohrer and Lukeman, they can take into account factors such as "pre-impact terror, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life."
Theoretically, the payment should not be different depending on whether the crash was from a mechanical or structural failure, or if it was due to the actions of a crew member, such as the Germanwings flight that crashed into the Alps earlier this year. However, in practice, negotiations will be different in each circumstance and may yield different results.
Even though eventual settlements will be far higher, airlines provide initial compensation to help families deal with immediate expenses while the final compensation level is sorted out. The amount varies since there is no uniform standard. The families of Germanwings victims were given $54,000 in immediate compensation, while TransAsia Flight 235 payments were nearly $38,000. The Malaysia Airlines flights MH17 and MH370 paid $50,000, and Air France AF447 paid out $24,500 in immediate compensation.
Unfortunately, while every victim has the same value on a moral basis, the maze of international laws ensures that not all lives in a plane crash will be given the same value.