Aircraft Maintenance Records: What You Write Matters
By Gregory J. Reigel
© January, 2011 All rights reserved.
The primary job of an aircraft mechanic or technician is to service and repair aircraft and their components/systems. However, an often marginalized aspect of aircraft maintenance, although no less important than the maintenance itself, is the creation of aircraft maintenance records. Maintenance providers prepare logbook entries, work cards, estimates, work orders and invoices in connection with the maintenance work they provide.
It is important for maintenance providers to exercise the same care with what they write, or do not write, in connection with aircraft service and repair as they do in actually performing their work. If they don't pay attention to what they write and exercise the proper amount of care, they could be looking at an FAA enforcement action or potential civil liability.
The FAA initiates enforcement action against a certificate holder (e.g. mechanic, pilot etc.) when it believes that the individual (or an entity in the case of a certificate issued under Part 135 or Part 145 etc.) has violated a one or more Federal Aviation Regulations ("FARs"). If the FAA is correct, it can impose sanctions against the certificate holder including suspension or revocation of the certificate or assessment of a civil penalty (a fine).
If the FAA suspends a certificate, this means that the certificate holder cannot exercise the privileges of that certificate during the period of the suspension. The certificate must also be physically surrendered to the FAA while the suspension is in effect. However, at the end of the suspension, the certificate is returned to the individual or entity, as the case may be.
Revocation of a certificate by the FAA means that the certificate is gone. The certificate holder is precluded from exercising the privileges of that certificate until the individual or entity reapplies and has a new certificate issued by the FAA.
Enforcement actions relating to a maintenance provider's aircraft records, or lack thereof, often times involve alleged violation of FAR 43.12(a)(1) (“no person may make or cause to be made a fraudulent or intentionally false entry in any record or report that the Administrator requires to be made, kept, or used to show compliance”). The FAA's sanction policy requires that it revoke the offending party's certificate in almost all of these types of cases.
In one recent case, the FAA tried to revoke a mechanic's certificate based upon an entry in an aircraft logbook that the FAA felt was fraudulent. During an annual inspection the mechanic removed the aircraft's ELT battery and determined that the battery was expired, but still functioning. After a discussion with the aircraft's owner in which the owner advised that he would obtain and install a replacement battery, the mechanic made an entry in the aircraft's logbook that he had “removed and replaced” the aircraft's ELT battery. Unfortunately, the FAA took the position that the mechanic was falsely stating that he had removed the ELT battery and replaced it with a new, unexpired battery.
The mechanic appealed the FAA's revocation of his mechanic certificate and, after a hearing before an NTSB administrative law judge ("ALJ"), the ALJ dismissed the revocation order. The ALJ sided with the mechanic and observed that the mechanic had used a "poor choice of words," but had not misrepresented the work he performed. Unhappy with the decision, the FAA appealed the decision to the full Board.
After reviewing the evidence and the ALJ's decision, the Board agreed with the ALJ. The Board initially noted that the ALJ's decision was primarily based upon his determination that the mechanic's explanation was credible. The Board then recited its longstanding policy that it must defer to an ALJ's credibility determination unless the evidence presented at the hearing shows that determination to be arbitrary or capricious.
The Board concluded that the ALJ's determination was not arbitrary or capricious and it affirmed the ALJ's dismissal of the revocation order. However, the Board also made it clear that "we do not condone use of ambiguous language in logbooks" and it reminded the mechanic, and others, that "the language in a logbook entry should not lack clarity.”
Inaccurate or carelessly drafted maintenance records can also result in civil liability for a maintenance provider. What is civil liability? Quite simply, it is when someone gets sued and a court determines that the defendant (the individual or entity being sued) owes the plaintiff (the party who sued) money for something the defendant did wrong.
In the context of aircraft maintenance records, civil liability can be based upon a variety of legal theories. One situation arises under contract law. Remember the estimates, work orders and logbook entries mentioned at the beginning of the article? Well, it is these very documents that an aircraft owner or operator can argue create a contract under which the maintenance provider agreed to perform certain services in exchange for payment.
For example, assume an aircraft owner or operator picks up an aircraft after service or maintenance and pays for that work. If the aircraft's logbook says a certain service was performed and the maintenance provider did not do that work, but the aircraft owner or operator paid for that work, then the aircraft owner or operator may have a breach of contract action against the maintenance provider.
Another legal theory under which a maintenance or service provider can be sued based upon issues with aircraft maintenance records is fraud or misrepresentation. Using the same facts as the contract example, the entry in the aircraft's logbook that a certain service was performed is a representation. If someone relies on that representation and it turns out to be false, any damage suffered by the person relying on that false representation could be the basis for a fraud or misrepresentation claim.
Keep in mind that this theory isn't just available to the person paying for the services. Anyone reasonably relying upon the misrepresentation in the logbook (e.g. another operator or, perhaps a purchaser of the aircraft), could sue the maintenance or service provider if they suffer damage as a result of the misrepresentation. That is certainly more exposure than under a contract theory.
With regulatory liability and/or civil liability waiting in the wings, maintenance providers should be vigilant when creating aircraft maintenance records. Be careful what you write. Make sure you are accurate and provide sufficient detail to remove any ambiguity about what work was actually performed. And deliver what you agree to deliver. After all, if you sign an aircraft maintenance record, you will be responsible.
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