The legal legacy of the 1985 Manchester air disaster was immense.
On 22 August 1985, British Airtours flight 28M from Manchester to Corfu was aborted because of an engine failure on take-off. The resulting fire claimed the lives of 55 passengers and cabin crew, many perishing due to inhalation of toxic smoke. Subsequent safety recommendations included floor lighting, changes to evacuation procedures and the design of and access to emergency exits.
I have no difficulty remembering the crash because I qualified in Manchester at this time and became an aviation solicitor. However, as the 30th anniversary approaches it is appropriate to examine the wider significance of this tragic event.
The Manchester air disaster was the start of the so-called ‘decade of disaster’. It was the first occasion where claimant solicitors truly coordinated their efforts, working under the now familiar steering committee/group solicitor structure.
Compensation limits against airlines under the Warsaw Convention quickly led to examination of a defective products action in the US pursued through a US attorney, chosen by beauty parade before the steering committee. The ultimate settlement terms remain confidential, but it was a mid-Atlantic settlement reflecting compensation levels somewhere between the two jurisdictions, a model followed in disasters such as Piper Alpha. The threat of US litigation was credible and effective.
Survivors and family of the deceased joined to form the Survivors Campaign to Improve Safety in Airline Flight Equipment (SciSafe). SciSafe went on to become a founder member of Disaster Action, a charity that supports those affected by disasters and aims to create a health and safety culture in which disasters are less likely to occur. It now has members from 28 disasters over a period of 40 years. SciSafe has campaigned tirelessly to make aircraft safer and organisations more accountable for the public’s safety.
The Manchester air disaster highlighted the significance of the emergency services’ response after a disaster; the difference that DNA testing can make to the timing of formal identification of victims; and the importance of communicating with families in addition to offering counselling. The 10-day inquest that took place in Manchester Town Hall was used to gather evidence for the legal claim, an approach later endorsed by the costs courts in the British Midland crash at Kegworth and Marchioness disasters. It also led to the later exemption meaning that solicitors in England and Wales could act on a contingency fee basis when they were co-counsel with US attorneys pursuing a claim in the US. The claimants’ solicitors realised the power of the media and used it to great effect, with defendants in this and later disasters handling reputational risk issues with varying degrees of success.
I trailed behind a stellar cast of lawyers. Rodger Pannone and Mike Napier formed a disaster practice which shared their name and each went on to become president of the Law Society. The Honourable Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, appointed by the secretary of state for defence to carry out a comprehensive review of safety in military aviation following the Nimrod disaster of 2006, was counsel on the defence side in this disaster. The defendant aviation solicitors went about their business in the City then and now as effectively as ever, but high-profile litigation in Manchester was on the legal map.
It is unlikely that the survivors and families appreciate the legal legacy of the disaster and the introduction of smokehoods remains unfinished business. But after 30 years, there is a strong argument that this disaster shaped the legal and wider dynamics of those that followed and, more importantly, made air travel safer for us all.
Geraldine McCool is a partner at Irwin Mitchell in Manchester specialising in aviation and claims against the MoD